Grimly Handsome review – Santa’s grotto meets Starsky and Hutch

Around the side of the Royal Court, through a yard filled with Christmas trees, lies a trio of sinister installations: a topsy-turvy Wendy house, with a table set for an upside-down meal; a room in which a young woman pores over police mugshots; and a grotto stuffed with death kitsch, like the lair of a psychopathic Santa. Plastic evidence bags hang from a rail along a corridor where small animals have made nests from city junk.

These are antechambers to the main arena, where Julia Jarcho’s macabre comedy Grimly Handsome plays out variations on the theme of partners in crime, with a pair of homicidal Christmas tree sellers plying a deadly trade on the sidewalks of an unnamed American city, stalked by a brace of swaggering, know-nothing detectives.

This revival of Jarcho’s 2013 Obie-winner by the director and designer partnership of Chloe Lamford and Sam Pritchard has its bafflements: who are the two men who slide from English to Slavonic accents, donning their characters with the hats and scarves they select from hooks behind our backs? What is the reason for their murderousness?

Alex Beckett and Amaka Okafor in Grimly Handsome. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Observer

Gradually it emerges that unknowability is the point. While the killers prey on trusting young women, wooing their victims with coffee and sympathy, the detectives cheat on each other. One is having an affair with the other’s wife, their infidelity both a symptom and an engine of the loneliness on which stranger-danger feeds. As a scavenging panda remarks in the last of three sections, the corpse whose spine he is gnawing died of natural causes: which is to say “human on human”.

The multitasking performers Alex Austin, Alex Beckett and Amaka Okafor have fun in a medley of genres, from David Lynch to the Coen brothers and Starsky and Hutch, the fluency of their transitions from killers to cops and victims underlining the fragility of identity in the modern city, and the delusion of assuming anyone is who they appear to be.

The staging is thrilling, using the large windows of this reclaimed studio to take the action out into the yard while simultaneously beaming it back in brilliant colour via an assortment of video screens. The result is a chilling and beautiful reminder that Christmas was invented to disguise the darkest time of the year.

Grimly Handsome – trailer

At the Site, Royal Court, London, until 23 December

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