It’s not clear what Christopher Adams’ chemsex-themed queer noir, Tumulus, wants to be. The jokes aren’t sharp enough for it to function as a comedy, its darker themes aren’t explored in enough depth for it to feel substantial – and the narrative isn’t suspenseful or engaging enough for its ‘thriller’ label to seem satisfactory.
Unpicking a chemsex-fuelled mishmash of suspects & motives relating to two corpses on Hampstead Heath, Christopher Adams’ meta-theatrical Tumulus shares much in form with the NT’s stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Just as Christopher inducts us into his world (of prime numbers, meticulous order and dogs-stabbed-by-pitchforks) through direct address and stylised sequences of movement and sound, Anthony initiates us into his (a North London-centric ‘party and play’ scene, where spiked drinks and routines reminders to self + audience that he’s ‘not yet 33’ are rife) through the same non-naturalistic means.
The inner workings of Anthony’s (Ciarán Owens) brain are realised onstage as Paul Casey Productions and Outside Edge’s central character connects dots, uncovers truths and sees spectres of the men sent prematurely to their graves. And as with Curious, audience members learn to look beneath the somewhat untrustworthy (or at least, incomplete) perspective and vocabulary of the protagonist to uncover further truths – which explains why director Matt Steinberg and performers Ian Hallard and Harry Lister Smith lend Tumulus‘ many other characters a cartoonish quality. We experience them entirely through Anthony’s eyes and/or recall, and as such, they’re deliberately less nuanced and three-dimensional.
I get all that – and am a big fan of what the meta-theatrical form can add to murder-mystery narratives in particular – but for me, the whole premise is somewhat reliant on your central character being easy to warm to, and the way in which they perceive the world and act on their inhibitions to be interesting and unique. The problem is Anthony is pretty impenetrable. The character seems to lack the charm, eccentricity or (albeit unintentional) wit of a ‘Christopher Boone’ – and as a result, it’s not particularly compelling, entertaining or suspenseful (whatever the piece’s overriding intended audience effect is) to spend 75 minutes inside his head.
Attempting to look beyond Anthony’s characterisation, Christopher Adams’ text is also just not as sharp or thrilling as the blurb would have you believe. Jokes aren’t strong enough to trigger more than chuckles, the conclusion isn’t satisfying (I hate to ruin it but murder mysteries aren’t much fun when the unveiled perpetrator turns out to be someone you barely encountered in the narrative…at the pinnacle moment, the script here actually takes to reminding you who he even is!) and multiple scenes seem marred by one contrivance after the next.
The production’s marketing collateral is keen to remind audiences that the text was inspired by real events, which renders some of the laughs the show tries to elicit (often pretty cheap ones) a little questionable for me. A reference to rape, in particular, is bizarrely played for laughs in Tumulus’ concluding scene: ‘When I’m under, will you?’ (victim to perpetrator who has just spiked his drink) is met by ‘You’re far too old for me’. I didn’t quite know how to respond to that – other than wince. Does someone think we can laugh at the prospect of rape as long as both parties are men? Am I missing something?
I’d also describe the performances with the same word that Anthony uses to describe the sex he has with a young twink. No character decisions really elevate a text that favours style over substance, and even if we decide that substance isn’t important here (more on that in a minute), you can’t help but feel the caricatured design of the peripheral characters could have led to some show-stealing moments. But the production’s voice distortion (all three characters are mic’ed, and someone has clearly discovered the ‘Effects’ menu in QLab audio) actually impairs the jokes rather than heightens any. I’m not entirely sure I can articulate the dramatic advantage of the technology – mere accents would have distinguished the characters, and landed the jokes better, for me.
Tumulus would be more successful and focused, in my opinion, if it committed to a primary objective and ran with that. In its existing form, it doesn’t quite land itself as a late-night campy and subversive piece for a boozed-up LGBT+ crowd who want a laugh – but equally, its content and conclusion isn’t substantial enough for it to carry much weight as a serious exploration of the themes it involves itself with (ie. chemsex, and the violence that takes place within LGBT+ communities) and its narrative isn’t intricate or surprising or suspenseful enough to function successfully as a thriller. The stakes just don’t feel high enough, and your lack of emotional connection with the narrator makes you care less than you feel you should about his wellbeing as the show reaches its climax.
I watched it politely, I chuckled once or twice, I winced as many times and suppose I left thinking it was pretty ineffectual. I wish it the best of luck with the remainder of its Soho Theatre transfer, but definitely can’t recommend.