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Seldom have the humble pencil and elastic band been put to such eloquent use on stage. This adaptation of a story by Yasutaka Tsutsui revels in ingenious deployment of simple objects to create a world that is playful and sinister, beautiful and brutal.

The story is about Mr Ido, a Japanese businessman, who returns home to find his house surrounded by cameras, cordons and cops. His wife and child have been taken hostage by a desperado who has escaped from prison. Mr Ido finds himself expected to play the role of anguished victim. But, being a successful businessman, he is schooled in the art of closing a deal.

He visits the fugitive’s wife and child – and takes them hostage in return. This throws all protocol into disarray. Soon a stand-off begins between the two men, who resort to increasingly gruesome tactics to try and wear one another down.

The play explores ruthlessness and the art of playing the role of victim or aggressor. It also suggests that a streak of merciless cunning lies beneath the veneer of polite society. But most disturbingly, Colin Teevan’s adaptation, together with Hideki Noda’s inventive production, draw links between comedy and pain, beauty and cruelty, particularly as associated with Japanese culture.

The central parts are cast against gender, with Kathryn Hunter playing the rapacious businessman and Noda playing his female victim – both superbly well. And Noda’s direction makes brilliant use of simple props to charm and disarm. The pencils and elastic bands with which a useless detective fiddles suddenly become chopsticks and noodles. Mr Ido uses pencils as fangs when he plays monsters with the captive child. We are more receptive then – and utterly shocked – when these innocuous lengths of wood come to represent severed fingers. Noda uses stylisation to make the cruelty seem more real and vivid. The piece ends by repeating a gruesome sequence over and over, to the humming chorus from Madama Butterfly, until, to our relief, the sequence becomes abstract and beautiful. So the play requires all of us, before Miriam Buether’s mirrored set, to examine our reactions to the representation of pain.

★★★★☆ Tel 0870 429 6883

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