The Pillowman Reviews

Reviews are coming in for Martin McDonagh’s play The Pillowman at the Duke of York’s Theatre, starring Lily Allen and Steve Pemberton.

Directed by Matthew Dunster (2:22 A Ghost Story) this electrifyingly revival stars Lily Allen (2:22 A Ghost Story) as Katurian, with Steve Pemberton (Inside No. 9) as Tupolski, Paul Kaye (Game of Thrones) as Ariel and Matthew Tennyson (Benediction) as Michal.

Other cast include Rebecca Lee (Mother and understudy Katurian), Daniel Millar (Father and understudy Ariel and Tupolski) Carlotta Di Gregori (understudy Mother) and David Angland (Blind Man and understudy Michal and Father). The role of Child 1 is shared by Ruby Siddle, Madelynne Mills and Sophia Cullingford, and the role of Child 2 is shared by Lexi Anna Scott, Darcy Crosby and Lillie Stocker.

Joining Dunster in the creative team are Production Designer Anna Fleischle, Lighting Designer Neil Austin, Sound Designer Ian Dickinson for Autograph, Video Designer Dick Straker, Casting Director Amy Ball CDG, Fight Director RC Annie, Movement Director Chi-San Howard, Associate Director Isabel Marr, and Associate Designer Liam Bunster.

The story centres on Katurian, a writer in a police state who is interrogated about the content of her short stories and their similarities to several murders occurring in the town.

The Pillowman is running at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 2 September.

Read reviews from the Independent, TimeOut, Stage and more, with further reviews to be added.

Book tickets to The Pillowman tickets at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London

The Pillowman reviews

The Independent

"Lily Allen is a letdown but this is a modern classic in waiting"

"The atmosphere is Kafka-esque, the stories like the Brothers Grimm on the heavy sesh. But these are knowing references in a play fascinated with the question of how we keep storytelling alive"

"This major West End production, starring Lily Allen in a gender-flipped lead role, is – surprisingly – the first major London revival since the premiere. What we find is a modern classic in waiting, ready to meet our current moment."

"... Matthew Dunster is in tune with the playwright’s blacker than black humour. There’s much for audiences to find distasteful still"

"So Dunster’s revival is of an extraordinary play, given an almost great production."

"I’m not convinced the gender flip works, but either way, Allen doesn’t give the role the same complexity as her more experienced castmates, which can feel frustrating. Pemberton and Kaye, though, are deliciously menacing and darkly funny"

Jessie Thompson, The Independent
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The Evening Standard

"Lily Allen is compulsively watchable in this wickedly funny work"

"Martin McDonagh’s swaggering play wrong-foots the audience throughout"

"The 2003 premiere of Martin McDonagh’s jet-black melding of fairytales, fascism and in-your-face offensiveness is one of my top 10 favourite productions. Matthew Dunster’s revival, featuring an impressive Steve Pemberton and a watchable but emotionally off-key Lily Allen doesn’t quite match that memory. Maybe my tolerance for the ironic use of hate-speech, and for writers writing about writing, has ebbed. Anyway: this remains an audacious, wickedly funny work that implicates and wrong-foots the audience throughout. It took nerve to write it, and it takes a strong stomach to watch it."

"One mark of McDonagh’s swagger is that many of these stories are simply, starkly read out onstage. Another is that horror is repeatedly upended by absurdity or plain silliness: the cops are part-Tarantino, part-panto. This play is a display of writerly virtuosity and a mea culpa about a writer’s heartlessness and vanity"

"Allen, who made an impressive stage-acting debut in Dunster’s ongoing 2:22 A Ghost Story, is compulsively watchable: drawn, intense, angular. But this show requires a juggling of emotional states she can’t quite muster. Tennyson, winner of the Outstanding Newcomer prize in the 2013 Evening Standard Theatre Awards, is very good as the damaged Michal: but again, the characterisation feels problematic."

Nick Curtis, The Evening Standard
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The Stage

"Gut-twistingly arresting and morbidly funny”"

"Starry cast delivers gallows laughs in Martin McDonagh’s violent, grotesque fairytale drama about the power of stories"

"... McDonagh’s play impishly insists on the slipperiness of creative vision, and the reductive fruitlessness of hunting for precise meaning in art. It is gut-twistingly arresting and morbidly funny – McDonagh’s hallmark queasy combination – but it also feels naggingly glib. That is exacerbated by Matthew Dunster’s production, which, while starrily cast and well timed as a salvo in the culture wars (it arrives, pointedly, without trigger warnings), fatally lacks the weight and intensity necessary to make the material’s nightmarish excesses feel properly earned."

"For all the Grand Guignol imagery, though, the production and performances are flyweight. There’s a pallid blankness about Allen that may be intentional, but makes her difficult to engage with; Pemberton and Kaye are predictably dab hands at the sinister comedy, but neither musters real menace."

Sam Marlowe, The Stage
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i News

"Lily Allen or not, will people pay West End prices for something this unpleasant?"

"This Martin McDonagh revival at The Duke of York’s Theatre is smart and spiky, but a fun night out this is not"

"Matthew Dunster, that play’s director, is at the helm here for a poised production that tracks McDonagh’s darting and mordantly unsettling shifts between comedy, banality and pure evil."

"Allen imbues Katurian with a gaunt and nervous energy but doesn’t manage to give the character quite enough heft to sustain us through the many lengthy renditions of her oeuvre. Pemberton does fine work in moving Tupolski from affable to explosive in under a second and Tennyson is exquisite as a faux-naif innocent with a heart of darkness."

Fiona Mountford, i News
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The Guardian

"Lily Allen fails to deliver visceral punch"

"In this revival of Martin McDonagh’s play about child mutilation, tyranny and freedom of expression, the twists and turns between comic and macabre sadly do not come off"

"Cerebral and slippery, it requires an accomplished actor to navigate its odd structure and changes of tone that slide between horror and humour, with punchlines tucked in between tales of children buried alive or attacked with drills. Allen does not meet the challenge."

"Under the direction of Matthew Dunster, who also directed Allen in 2:22, the shifts between the comic and macabre do not come off. Allen’s Katurian is too indistinct, quivering with fear or blank-faced, though she delivers her lines efficiently."

"There is a potentially explosive brilliance in this play, but its many ideas do not make a coherent whole here. When, at one point, Katurian retells a bedtime story about “a pillowman” to her brother, he says he has never understood the ending. He might be speaking for us."

Arifa Akbar, The Guardian
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"In a workmanlike Lily Allen-starring West End revival, Martin McDonagh’s dark 2003 play doesn’t quite live up to its own legend"

"But there’s something about its obvious desire to shock that’s dated it somewhat: the constant dwelling on child abuse and murder in Katurian’s stories feel more of a piece with the ‘90s In Yer Face scene McDonagh emerged from than the actual plays he wrote in the ‘90s. It‘s not that we’ve become more prudish or that Katurian’s Hans Christian Andersen-with-the-bleakness-turned-up-to-11 fables lack cruel elegance. But it’s left with an air of contrivance, and the sense it’s no longer saying the unsayable because it already said it 20 years ago."

"t comes down to the cast to carry it off, and on that score it’s largely good news. Steve Pemberton is tremendous as Tupolski"

"Having missed the original production, I wonder if perhaps I’ve been telling myself a story about how ‘The Pillowman’ was a masterpiece. And I think I still believe that story on some level: with a bolder director and a really great lead, I think ‘The Pillowman’ could be more than this dark, funny, thrilling but ultimately contrived revival. Let’s try this again properly in another 20 years, maybe."

Andrzej Lukowski, TimeOut
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The Telegraph

"Lily Allen all at sea in dull revival"

"Matthew Dunster's production of Martin McDonagh’s playfully nasty tale is suitably sinister but lacks psychological conviction"

"... Martin McDonagh’s playfully nasty 2003 Olivier winner, The Pillowman, given a belated if timely West End premiere in this new staging by Matthew Dunster at a moment when moral hysteria over art and its purpose feels much more hot-button than it did 20 years ago."

"Allen, so effortlessly watchable in 2.22: A Ghost Story, brings an initially amusing and bland respectability to Katurian"

"Dunster’s production, staged mainly in a suitably sinisterly drab municipal office, is correspondingly full of throwaway tension and outsized cartoon humour, helped no end by several vintage McDonagh one-liners."

"... Dunster’s production lacks psychological conviction and a certain atmospheric pungency, while Allen is all at sea amid the play’s daring shifts in tone. I went expecting to be shaken and sickened. Instead I found myself often mildly bored."

Claire Allfree, The Telegraph
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The Times

"Tale of art and suffering is a struggle to sit through"

"Is Allen up to the task? It’s true that she didn’t disgrace herself in that immensely popular supernatural thriller, 2:22: A Ghost Story (which was also directed by Dunster). But here, her limitations are more exposed. There’s precious little variation in her voice and gestures; sometimes she seems almost a spectator at her own ordeal. It’s Steve Pemberton and Paul Kaye — as the sadistic Tupolski and Ariel respectively — who command your attention."

"Yet for all its rhetorical flourishes, The Pillowman is a shallow exercise in Grand Guignol, laced with spurious meditations on the nature of art and creativity."

"The black humour soon acquires a mechanical ring. Matthew Tennyson adds raw emotion as the vulnerable Michal. Anna Fleischle’s evocative set design creates an impersonal office with a battered steel door which could have come from the Lubyanka prison. Well before the end, though, boredom took the place of claustrophobia."

Clive Davis, The Times
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The Observer

"Lily Allen glimmers in a low-voltage Martin McDonagh revival"

"The Pillowman needs to move like the unconscious: with speed and stealth. Matthew Dunster’s production is too low voltage and deliberate to crackle. When Anna Fleischle’s design, shabby but brightly lit, zooms towards the audience, it does so without menace."

"Though nicely taut and nervy, Allen moves only between jumpiness and anger. She reacts but is not consumed by events. A play that should disturb with the wildness of its creation pokes at its audience as if it were a ghost story."

Susannah Clapp, The Observer
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The Financial Times

"Making Katurian a woman in Matthew Dunster’s production subtly changes the dynamic. Allen is the only female character in a hostile male environment"

"Allen, taut and drawn, scopes this complexity deftly, though she doesn’t quite plumb the depths of Katurian’s own moral ambiguity."

"For me, the determination to shock and baffle the audience means the piece never packs the punch of, say, Pinter’s chilling torture drama One for the Road. But it’s still a gripping revival. A week of tall tales in the service of difficult truths."

Sarah Hemming, The Financial Times
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📷 Main photo: Lily Allen (Katurian) Steve Pemberton (Tupolski) The Pillowman - pic by Johan Persson

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