By guest reviewer Maeve Campbell
Contemporary pop culture is awash with true crime stories: NPR’s Serial, HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making of a Murder are just a few titles that have recently gripped public imagination. It is therefore not surprising that two plays about the life of Harry Crawford, born Eugenia Falleni in 1875, have been dramatised in the last few years. The Trouble with Harry by Lachlan Philpot played in Melbourne in 2014 and now Christopher Bryant’s The Mutant Man comes to the Space Arts Centre.
Crawford served fifteen years in a woman’s prison for murdering his partner Annie Birkett. Interest in Crawford’s case comes at a time of increased visibility of transgendered people in the media, and a disintegration of trans rights in an increasingly right-wing political world. The Mutant Man, and Crawford’s story, feels incredibly timely.
Director Heather Fairbairn’s production has moments of beauty. The play’s non-linear structure means the audience are drip-fed snippets of Crawford’s life, with a love story at the centre of the narrative. Matthew Coulton and Clementine Mills switch playing Crawford and the production successfully employs several mediatised elements, aiding a disjointed and chaotic style of storytelling. The projection of live and recorded video onto the back wall of the theatre space is particularly effective in the haunting, reverberating venue.
The influence of theatre company Forced Entertainment’s work is clear in the design and direction. For example, in one scene half full spirit bottles are played with onstage and live fed to the back wall, creating a sense of being at sea. Clever moments like this are scattered throughout the production.
Sean Gleason’s lighting design is truly stunning. Several lamps are used to light the show, including large standing lamps that are moved around by the actors, make the stage feel more like a film set than a theatre space and emphasise the strangeness and implausibility of the tale.
However, the production relies heavily on its scenography and often clouds the play’s message. It could be longer; 70 minutes isn’t enough for these characters’ development. Crawford is not necessarily a sympathetic character because the audience doesn’t ever get to know him. The dialogue is predominantly expository monologue, but the best writing is in the few interactions between characters.
Coulton and Mills have a tangible chemistry together, but are mostly solo players. The choice of both actors to play Crawford neutrally creates consistency in the character and justifies a casting choice of two apparent cis-gendered actors. Crawford is more than his biology and body.
Yet, when the play explores the sexual practicalities of Crawford and Birkett’s relationship, it’s not clear what points Bryant is making. In these sections, Crawford’s character becomes distinctly more feminine. A moment when Crawford is reviled by his menstruation is crudely realised. Mills holds up her hands in disgust, as Coulton’s bloody ones are filmed and live fed to the back wall of the stage.
The depiction of Crawford’s rape whilst working as a cabin boy is another jarring moment. Coulton emits loud sexual, albeit distressed, noises into a microphone onstage. This is done again in a sex scene between Crawford and Birkett. These moments are out of tune in a generally sombre and sensitive portrayal of Crawford’s relationships.
The Mutant Man is beautifully performed with glimpses of visual genius in its staging. Bryant’s script nearly matches the emotional beats in Crawford’s tale, but is just too cloudy in sentiment to make a real political statement about trans rights today
The Mutant Man runs through 8 April.
The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.