Before I saw this mesmerising play, I’d only vaguely heard of John George Haigh – the 1940’s serial killer who dissolved his victims’ bodies in acid, in the mistaken belief that destroying the corpse would preclude a charge of murder. This well-travelled production, which returns to Brighton Fringe after an absence of five years, certainly fills in the details of the notorious real-life tale. But it’s more than a documentary: it’s an engaging character study, and despite its hideous subject matter it proves deceptively watchable, too.
This isn’t quite a one-hander – Suzanne Procter is selflessly excellent in a range of supporting roles – but Haigh himself is very much the master of the stage. Played by Nigel Fairs, who also wrote the script, Haigh is an urbane, moustache-sporting businessman with a confident air and an easy charm. He’s roguish, perhaps, and a tiny bit boastful, but he’s someone you’d be pleased to meet at a dinner party. And that’s a disconcerting feeling… because we, the audience, have at least some idea of the terrible secrets he hides.
This is a deliciously gothic story, but it’s also a tragic and disturbing one – and Fairs’ script carefully treads the line between knowing grotesqueness and simple bad taste. At times, the tone is bleakly humorous, and Procter in particular delivers a hint of wide-eyed melodrama that suits the period milieu. But when the narrative turns visceral, it’s genuinely chilling, and the true horror of Haigh’s crimes is revealed at a carefully measured pace. A scene set on Beachy Head is especially suspenseful, as we wait to discover his innocent lover’s fate.
It’s also a gently challenging production – holding the mirror up to our salacious interest in the story, and asking difficult questions about our own psychology. An eerie soundscape contributes to the dark tone, and the claustrophobic Old Police Cells are a highly atmospheric venue (though it must be said, with only the final scenes set in prison, the programme’s claim of “site-specific” theatre is a rather tenuous one).
Many a playwright has discovered to their cost that true stories aren’t necessarily believable ones. So Fairs’ triumph – both as writer and actor – is to take this scarcely-credible tale, and make both the crime and the criminal feel comprehensible and real. That it’s done with a lightness of touch, teetering on the edge of humour without tipping into tasteless comedy, is all the more remarkable. It’s a masterclass in characterisation – and an exemplar of factual drama done well.