For the third in its series of Drama Showcase plays on CD, Big Finish has turned away from the lifestyle dilemmas that characterised its first two releases, Not a Well Woman and Pulling Faces, for a dark tale of murder based on historical events.
In Nigel Fairs’ In Conversation With an Acid Bath Murderer, Fairs himself plays John George Haigh, who was hanged in 1949 for the murder of at least six people. Presented as a monologue in which Haigh directly addresses us, the audience, he relates events that led to his incarceration – from developing his own twisted sense of morality as a byproduct of being raised by parents who were part of the Plymouth Brethren, through a series of convictions for fraud, through developing his method of murder and disposal of the evidence.
By dissolving his victims’ bodies in concentrated sulphuric acid until they turned to sludge, Haigh believed that he would be uncatchable, as without a body there could be no proof of murder – a belief that stems from a misunderstanding of the term corpus delicti, or ‘body of evidence’.
This is a play which demands you listen on headphones, with a sound design (by Fairs) and direction by Louise Jameson that allows Haigh to invade your mind – by the end, at least. The play takes a while to warm up, the conversational aspect feeling false to begin with. There’s a preponderance of Haigh referring to “you” and “we” that, rather than making us feel like we’re part of a conversation, only serve to remind us that this is a dramatic device. Rather than drawing us in, it holds us at arm’s length.
As a result, it takes longer than it should to become involved in the story – but once it grabs you, it does not let go. Concentrating on three specific murders from the six that Haigh was convicted for (it is suspected that he killed several more), Fairs tries to show how the man could have been so charming to have ensnared so many unsuspecting victims.
If anything, I found Fairs’ delivery of Haigh’s narration one of the most infuriating barriers to involving myself in the world his script creates. Most of it is related with an audible smirk – the sort of self-satisfied voice that, while it’s a valid reading of how Haigh saw himself, risks sounding like an author who’s a little too pleased with his own writing.
Once Haigh meets up with Archie Henderson and his wife, Rosalie, the tone changes and the play really starts working. The actual murders are implied, rather than recreated, which makes the imagery all the more shocking. As Haigh continues relating events without any sense of remorse, his narration becomes all the more chilling, right up until the final sound of Haigh’s sentence being carried out.
A few days ago, I blogged about how the promotional blurb for this play includes a quote from The Stage: “Darkly played… Nasty, creepy and disturbing”, and noted how the review the quote comes from was talking about how the play should have been presented, rather than how it had been. In the twelve years since that review was written, it seems those notes have been taken to heart, for the finished product really is creepy and disturbing. Eventually.
On a side note, this is the third of three Drama Showcase productions by Big Finish that consist primarily of monologues, interspersed with short scenes with a larger cast. I do hope that, as the series continues, it utilises a wider variety of dramatic styles.