Theatre Review: Tumulus

Harry Lister Smith and Ian Hallard. Photo Darren Bell

As reviewer CARY GEE takes his seat, a cast member hands around a tray of drinks. Apple juice or Lucozade?

Anthony (Ciaran Owens) is not a happy bunny. The reason for his present unhappiness, apart from the considerable amount of drugs he has consumed during his 30+ years, is an apparition. Anthony is being visited by his one night stand George. But George is dead, his drug-addled corpse discovered by a dog-walker on the Tumulus, a mound on London’s Hampstead Heath.

Anthony acts as both narrator and sleuth in what is essentially a “gay noir” or ghostly murder mystery. George’s death is initially dismissed by the police, and his associates as the result of an accidental chem overdose. He was, after all, a regular at the sex parties thrown by a wealthy gay neighbour, the kind of openly dishonest, morally bankrupt scoundrel that thinks nothing of preying on cute younger men new on the scene.

Although dark, Tumulus is no by means bleak. The dialogue between the characters moves from sparkling to incendiary, witty satire to fear and loathing, as some attempt to uncover the truth while others do their best to keep the truth hidden, even as another body turns up.

Matt Steinberg’s inventive direction employs every theatrical trick available to him in this metadrama, and at times his smoke and mirrors threaten to overwhelm the relatively small stage, but witty sound effects, sinister lighting operated by the cast itself (which includes Ian Hallard and Harry Lister Smith – both excellent) and the removal of the fourth wall help to alleviate the archness. As does Christopher Adam’s script, never better than when dissecting the social mores of middle-class North London. “Peruvian chocolate topped with a lozenge of Champagne jelly” anyone?

But as we come to discover, it’s not the jelly that did for George, and suddenly the drinks that were offered around at the start of the play make sense.

Unusually the non-too-subtle homophobia that pervades the death of the young gay man is not restricted to the police. The gay characters too exhibit a degree of self-hatred, a brave take by Adams that would have made for an even more gripping tale, had he wished to prick the underbelly of gay life a little deeper, but as entertainment Tumulus certainly quickens the blood. Previously staged at the Vaults, perhaps its next incarnation should take place in a park, or even on the Heath itself.

Tumulus is at the Soho theatre until 4 May

 Go to