An Execution (By Invitation Only) review – obtuse philosophical games

When the prisoner (Greg McLaren) puts a bucket over his head so as not to hear the man who is talking centre stage, I wonder if there are any spares to hand so that we might do the same.

We’re locked in a paper box cell with the prisoner, the wet lips of an arachnid glory hole and the interrupting trio of lawyer (Simon Kane), jailer (Tom Lyall) and visitor (Shamira Turner). Left with nothing to hand but a pencil and our waning patience, the prisoner occupies himself with obfuscation and tired philosophical games (the piece is loosely inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading) as he awaits his execution date.

Nabokov wrote that a good reader is a rereader. Director Gemma Brockis is revisiting this script, originally staged in 2002 with performance collective Shunt. But like the prisoner’s indecipherable scrawls across the floor, Brockis’s update is stubbornly obtuse. Despite the vivid subject matter, An Execution (By Invitation Only) lacks context; it is devoid of politics, class and wit. A sack of ideas is thwacked against the paper wall but the structure is too thin; it just splits.

Turner, Lyall, Simon Kane as the lawyer and Greg McLaren as the prisoner. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The surrealism feels lazy and the humour is unsatisfying. Brockis wants to say something about the grotesque joy we gain from watching brutality, but the dully eccentric script is neither strong nor funny enough.

Perhaps I just need to be a better reader, and the boredom the play breeds from bewilderment is a device. But many plays are written about men unable to escape their circumstances, and An Execution flails in its attempt to subvert these well-trodden tropes. It’s rarely shocking and hardly radical; I’d rather not reread. Can we unlock the door now?

At Camden People’s Theatre, London, until 29 September.

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