THEATRE REVIEW: The State vs. John Hayes, King’s Head Theatre

running until 22 November

Lucy Roslyn’s The State vs. John Hayes first came to my attention when it played at C Venues at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2013, where it was critically acclaimed. Sadly, in the rush of the Fringe, I never made it to a performance; after two years of touring, the show has now arrived at the King’s Head Theatre as part of their 45th anniversary season, and it’s here that I finally saw Roslyn’s gripping performance for myself.

State v John Hayes (c) Jemma Gross
(c) Jemma Gross

Set on death row, this one-woman play explores the complex mindset of Elyese Dukie/John Hayes and the crimes (s)he has committed. Forbidden love, murder, psychological turmoil – it all sounds pretty bleak. Yet Roslyn imbues the character with delightfully twisted humour, and is utterly fascinating. We know Elyese is a murderer; yet there is something about the character that draws us in, her eye contact with the audience, reaction to their movements or noises, and glint in her eyes being strangely alluring. Roslyn charms and manipulates the audience, witty and charismatic, but is also brutally upfront about her violent crimes, and this charm becomes unnerving. It soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems: Elyese is tormented by stabbing pains, the lights crackle and there is another presence in her cell – John Hayes. As her split personality disorder emerges, a more complex web unfolds in this psychological thriller.

Roslyn’s performance is wonderful as she utterly inhabits not the only the role of Elyese/John, but also the other characters she tells us of, effortlessly switching between them to great comic effect. The script (also by Roslyn) bubbles along with twists and tangles of different emotions, and it keeps the audience both enthralled and working hard throughout; it’s not always easy to get your head round the mix of pronouns and many tangents. The sound and lighting (by Sophie Cotton and Sherry Coenen respectively) are simple yet effective, the bare light bulb flickering ominously and adding to the feeling of being slightly on edge for the duration of the hour-long performance.

The success of this show continues wherever it goes, and it’s a more than worthy addition to the King’s Head’s anniversary season. Absorbing, moving, unnerving and entertaining, this show will make you laugh, but with a shiver down your spine. A triumph for Roslyn, whose portrayal of this elusive character is unmissable.

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