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Killology, Jerwood Upstairs, Royal Court, London, review: A tense, beautifully acted production

Playwright Gary Owen and director Rachel O’Riordan scored an award-laden hit with Iphigenia in Splott, a blistering one-woman show that moved from Cardiff to the National Theatre. The pair are reunited for this new piece – a co-production between the Sherman Theatre and the Royal Court – which has more in common, thematically, with Owen’s powerful 2015 Royal Court play, Violence and Son. Confronting us with three male characters who mostly speak in monologues, Killology is haunted by the responsibilities and failures of fatherhood about which it is heartbreakingly eloquent.

Paul (Richard Mylan) has invented a wildly successful video-game in which players torture their victims. “Creativity” is rewarded but Paul has managed to persuade himself that Killology has a moral influence because you lose points if you look away from the screen while you are inflicting the agonies. Ironically, the inspiration came from his desire to wreak virtual vengeance again and again on his wealthy industrialist dad who adamantly scoffs at Paul for squandering his advantages. At the opposite end of the scale, young Davey (Sion Daniel Young), raised in poverty by his single mum, talks with distressing immediacy about the violence he encountered in a neighbourhood where bullies ruled the roost and blind eyes were habitually turned: “You can’t tell your mum the streets are full of psychos and it’s pure fluke you get home alive each night”.

The first figure we meet, though, is Alan (Sean Gleeson) who relates how he has infiltrated a luxury flat with the intent to murder its owner. We gradually realise that Alan’s son has been subjected to unspeakable torture in ways that were modelled on a particular level of Killology; hence the spanner, blow-torch, chisel et al that Alan has brought in his bag to the inventor’s apartment. It would be misleading, though, to suggest that play is principally preoccupied with the real-life consequences of video-game violence.

That’s just the most vivid strand in what is a subtle and searching examination of the obligations of father to son and vice versa. The stories are interrelated but there is also an aching sense of disconnection in O’Riordan’s tense, beautifully acted production. A tangle of digital cables, with their wires exposed, dangles over the dark, water-soaked set by Gary McCann – an industrial wasteland where the characters, on-stage throughout, mooch in their bleak separateness expect for a couple of passages of interaction.

The monologues skirt around each other, underscored by the distant, eerie metallic wheezing and banging of Simon Slater’s superbly ominous sound design. The idea that they are all part of the one converging narrative is offset by way the script plays with reality and what-if alternative scenarios. Their notions of masculinity warped through privilege or penury, neglected sons experience the unconsoling redemption of being more dutiful carers to their elderly, ailing fathers.

In his iridescent, tech-billionaire suit and trainers, Mylan’s cocky, strutting Paul butts his head vainly against the gilded bars of his dad’s disappointment in him. Young is devastatingly good as Davey, the victim and perpetrator-in-turn of violence, his fresh face forever twisting as if he’s struggling to tough out the impulse to break down. And Gleeson is gut-wrenching as the craggy embodiment of a father who is seized by a terrible, belated desire to make amends for his past fecklessness.

Strongly recommended.

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