Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp review: Caryl Churchill quartet is haunting and audacious

Churchill’s approach has her distinctively inspired stamp in its almost laconic outrageousness

Paul Taylor
Thursday 26 September 2019 11:12 BST
Toby Jones, Deborah Findlay and Sule Rimi in ‘Bluebeard’s Friends’
Toby Jones, Deborah Findlay and Sule Rimi in ‘Bluebeard’s Friends’ (Johan Persson)

Caryl Churchill pushes boundaries. Your wits need to hurry to keep up with the audacious, haunting and often horribly funny games the veteran dramatist is playing in Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. This latest quartet of works is unveiled in James Macdonald’s immaculate, imaginative productions on the Royal Court’s main stage.

It’s conceivable that other dramatists might have come up with the idea of a grotesque correspondence between the alleged depravities of Weinstein, Trump, Epstein et al and the career of Bluebeard, the serial wife-killer of fable. But Churchill’s approach here has her distinctively inspired stamp in its almost laconic outrageousness. The brothers of the murdered women have already put the offstage ogre into intensive care with 15 frustratingly non-fatal stab wounds. The full title of the play is Bluebeard’s Friends; the focus is on his erstwhile moneyed intimates, seen foregathering in his castle for a postmortem over a few bottles of wine.

One confesses that their absent friend once asked her to marry him. Just think: she’d be dead now, but a “celebrity” like her sister, who did tie the knot and found fame as one of the uncovered corpses.

Unease does stalk the chat, and there is some rattled acknowledgement of “unknowing” complicity. One of the men is pursued by nightmares of killing “a person, maybe a woman”. One of the women is in denial about a new, tell-tale black eye. But, with remarkable stealth and economy, the play shows how a materialist, shameless culture allows this network of hangers-on to brazen out any tendencies to self-blame. In a jolting coup de theatre (spoiler alert), the grievously bloodied white gowns of the victims flop down down and dangle in mid-air (the excellent design is by Miriam Buether). Searing indictment of Bluebeard’s perverted collecting habit? Or meaty marketing opportunity?

One couturier envisages selling reproductions – not in exactly the same material (the original fabric had, of course, been medieval), but with the blood marks washed out of some so that the latter can be flogged as pseudo-feminist “power dresses”.

For a Halloween costume party, the woman who turned him down wears one of these, accessorised by a joke-shop blue beard. “You’re going as the story!” is the delighted cry. “It’s what I feel like looking like,” this person smoulders in an ironic delusion of empowerment.

The play is an extrapolation of the anxiety that we will slump back into the old status quo. Toby Jones brings his marvellous air of wrecked, slightly shifty cherub to the proceedings, and Deborah Findlay her comic genius for conveying the snouty, awkward-squad obstinacy beneath a guise of reassurance. In Bluebeard’s Friends, she’s the determined frock-adaptor. At one point, she is seen in a frenzy of cutting books by men in which “women get harmed and it’s not condemned”. But where would you draw the line, asks a chum? What about books by bankers, generals, dangerous drivers? “So I will have decluttered,” is her indefectible response.

In Imp, the best of the other pieces, Jones and Findlay work beautifully together as a pair of working-class cousins in the last leg of lives that have been scarred by poverty, poor mental health and childlessness. She claims to have an imp trapped in a bottle, which they dream of releasing, because neither likes the friendship that builds up between the only people they could call dependents: a promising, but rather tormented Irish niece (Louisa Harland) and an ex-addict who sleeps rough in the local cemetery. Churchill creates a powerful sense of a fractured world where well-meaning people can turn in a trice against outsiders, and unnerved people fear everything – including whether putting the cork back in the bottle will restrain the eponymous imp.

Taking its cue from the fragility and harassed transparency of the girl made entirely of glass (represented as a normal-looking character in the first play), Christopher Shutt’s excellent sound design is punctuated and bound by the ting of struck glassy objects and the hectic shimmering resonances. It’s as if a migraine is starting in your temples.

Between the plays, Frederike Gerstner and Tamzen Moulding perform some dexterous gymnastic balancing acts and juggling routines with clubs. It’s as aesthetically pleasing and it is droll. Roll up, roll up.

To 12 Oct, tickets and information at

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