1. The Pillowman, Duke of York’s Theatre, 2023
    Photo: Johan PerssonLily Allen (Katurian) and Matthew Tennyson (Michal)
  2. The Pillowman, Duke of York’s Theatre, 2023
    Photo: Johan PerssonLily Allen (Katurian) and Steve Pemberton (Tupolski)
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended


The Pillowman

3 out of 5 stars

In a workmanlike Lily Allen-starring West End revival, Martin McDonagh’s dark 2003 play doesn’t quite live up to its own legend


Time Out says

‘The Pillowman’ is the great ’00s British play that got away. Martin McDonagh’s dark 2003 comedy – which starred a pre-‘Doctor Who’ David Tennant – was extravagantly praised upon its debut at the National Theatre’s smallest venue, the Cottesloe. But for whatever reason it never made it to the West End: all the more frustrating because it splashily transferred to Broadway, with Jeff Goldblum and Billy Crudup joining the cast. McDonagh’s subsequent colossal film success has only embellished its legend, and plans for a West End revival have long been mooted.

And so now, 20 years after the National it’s here and it’s… 

…quite good..?

Set in a nameless totalitarian state, ‘The Pillowman’ follows the police interrogation of Katurian, an abattoir worker and prolific amateur writer of horrifying short stories. As the play wears on, it turns into an intricate, gristly Chinese box of horror, a horrible story made up of horrible stories, that serves as a consideration of the purpose of writing and the impulse to do so.

McDonagh’s more frequently revived, Ireland-set earlier plays have generally stood up well. And ‘The Pillowman’ is full of brilliant bits, as the bemused Katurian is aggressively questioned by cops Tupolski and Ariel about a string of horrifying child murders that would appear to exactly replicate the writer’s (largely unpublished) stories.

Despite holding her own Lily Allen seems like a perverse piece of casting

But there’s something about its obvious desire to shock that’s dated it somewhat: the constant dwelling on child abuse and murder in Katurian’s stories feel more of a piece with the ‘90s In Yer Face scene McDonagh emerged from than the actual plays he wrote in the ‘90s. It‘s not that we’ve become more prudish or that Katurian’s Hans Christian Andersen-with-the-bleakness-turned-up-to-11 fables lack cruel elegance. But it’s left with an air of contrivance, and the sense it’s no longer saying the unsayable because it already said it 20 years ago.

‘The Pillowman’ isn’t fatally dated: its vision of the world as an endless, interlocking world of bleak fables is darkly seductive. I’m sure it could have a classic 2023 production, but ‘2:22’ and ‘Shirley Valentine’ director Matthew Dunster only half gets there. Regular stage collaborator with McDonagh – who has complained about other directors tinkering with his work – you sense that his goal here isn’t to reevaluate or update ‘The Pillowman’ or otherwise rock the boat, but simply to finally put it on a West End stage.

It comes down to the cast to carry it off, and on that score it’s largely good news. Steve Pemberton is tremendous as Tupolski, the self-regarding yet self-aware authoritarian who never seems to bear Katurian any real ill will, even as he wearily gears up to execute the writer. Paul Kaye is livewire intense as the violent, dim, emotional Ariel. And Matthew Tennyson (Michal) is very enjoyable as Katurian’s blithe, selfish brother (a character it doesn’t bear getting too much into for fear of spoilers).

And what of Lily Allen as Katurian? Flipping the character’s gender is not really a big deal: perhaps there’s something a bit less grubby and a bit more dignified about the character in the crisply spoken former pop star’s hands, the sense that maybe a posh woman with an elegant bob writing stories about child murder in her spare time is less sordid than a shabby man doing so. 

Star of the original run of ‘2:22’, Allen displays more range here: when she’s first brought into the police station Katurian is in a state of high middle-class fluster, embarrassed by her situation as much as anything, desperate to get out. As the play wears on she settles into her role of straight woman to the increasingly vexed men around her, facing almost certain death with a mix of boredom and irritation. She acquits herself well in the storytelling sections. She’s up to the task. But this is only her second stage role – she’s not a world-class actor. Despite holding her own she seems like a perverse piece of casting: neither so famous she’s guaranteed to sell tickets, nor so gifted that she’s guaranteed to sell the play. In particular, I was never convinced by Katurian’s desperation that her work be preserved – it seemed to be something she felt fairly strongly about, but there was no fanaticism of self-delusion there.

Having missed the original production, I wonder if perhaps I’ve been telling myself a story about how ‘The Pillowman’ was a masterpiece. And I think I still believe that story on some level: with a bolder director and a really great lead, I think ‘The Pillowman’ could be more than this dark, funny, thrilling but ultimately contrived revival. Let’s try this again properly in another 20 years, maybe.


Event website:
£39.50-£125. Runs 2hr 30min
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