Following its premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Rachel Garnet’s The Standard Short Long Drop arrives in extended form in London’s latest theatre space, The Vanguard in Camden Market.
Set in 1885, two men share a jail cell, both awaiting execution. Lewis “Ludley” Thornhill (played by Per Carminger) is the younger, more jittery and talkative of the two. His cellmate, Alistair (Kevin Wathen) is more self-contained and measured, even guarded. But since York cannot afford a full-time hangman (“piss poor management” suggests Alistair), the pair begin to get to know each other.
The opening scenes of The Standard Short Long Drop give the initial impression that this might be a dark comedy, with some amusing exchanges between the two prisoners. When discussing the ten to twenty minute period it may take to die from hanging, they discuss what they will do. Alistair moots the idea of telling himself a story before dismissing it: “who wants to die on a cliffhanger?” Later, when discussing the details of executions, Ludley declares “I’m famously delicate!”
This lighter, gallows humour soon dissipates, replaced by a darker tone. As they begin to discuss their respective crimes, Ludley’s claim that he is a horse thief immediately arouses suspicion – stealing a horse would not merit being sentenced to the gallows. And the enigmatic Alistair is initially more evasive to reveal what he’s charged with: “It’s complicated”.
The drama ratchets up when the younger man is offered a stay of execution but only if he will serve as hangman to his fellow cellmate. Gradually as the play progresses, defences are broken down, questions of morality are faced head on, and secrets are revealed between the two as they begin to trust and understand each other.
Both actors give beautiful performances. Per Carminger is heart breaking as the callow, angst-ridden Ludley. He deftly conveys the flitting turns of his character’s volatile emotions and draws out true empathy from the audience. Even with the less showy role, Kevin Wathen carefully paces unpacking the layers of his stolid character. An ever-changing dynamic between the two is played with real intelligence.
While these skilled performers certainly deliver the resonances of the story, the extended runtime of the script frustrates their best efforts. Instead of building up the dramatic tension throughout, The Standard Short Long Drop stalls about halfway through the 80-minute running time with increasingly repetitive scenes looping round on themselves and fatally choking the show’s momentum. Lacking the necessary emotional rise and fall, the work in this form feels like a Fringe-length story overstretched to a play-length production.
It seems apt that this new space, The Vanguard, a venue built in 1880s as horse stables, should have its debut play featuring a horse thief. Unfortunately, while the space itself is an excellent, intimate room, it also boasts the most uncomfortable chairs in a London theatre space The Recs has ever endured. For a play about crime and punishment, the rows of wedding function chairs ensured that it was the audience who were doing hard labour.
This newly-extended version of The Standard Short Long Drop simply hangs around for too long – ★★★ 3 stars