“Myra”, Rialto Theatre

Jeremy Malies in Brighton
4 May 2018


High on my priorities for the Brighton Fringe was Myra, a one-woman show about Moors murderer Myra Hindley who redefined our notions of sadism between 1963 and 1965 as she and Ian Brady tortured and killed five children. The story already forms part of a collective consciousness and when you find a project of this kind listed in a festival brochure the first concern is whether psychological insight will be swamped by dramatic effect.

This could not be further from the truth in a piece that should have a life beyond Brighton at theatre festivals internationally. Just one look at performer Lauren Varnfield against the backdrop of the celebrated police mugshot with the bottomless basilisk stare and you are confident of seeing an objective treatment.

Nuanced acting is matched by a sharp script that Varnfield created herself in a devised process with creative input from Mark Wilson. She dissects the relationship with Brady scrupulously. Just as in any intense affair, sense of self breaks down. Her lover has begun with no moral compass and his veneer of charisma and education together with manipulative skills soon become overpowering.

The play presents Hindley as having capacity for extreme evil but only in a unique set of circumstances accelerated by a psychopath who confounded every clinician that attended him until his death last year. The conclusion seems to be that without Brady, Hindley might have continued in her office career and become the very tough and vindictive head of a typing pool responsible for a few bruised egos but no more.

My only quarrel is that Myra needs a framing device. Our anti-hero simply unravels (albeit through astute acting and character observation) in front of us. A non-speaking actor on stage playing a psychiatrist or warder might drive her through the narrative and there would be no question as to why she is revealing all. Even occasional scribbling in a diary would suffice. Elsewhere, technical components are outstanding. Music choices are redolent of the period without being predictable and technician Doug Ellingford creates a slick montage of newspaper headlines that shows landmark events during Myra’s years in prison.

Research must have been exhaustive with a range of reference that gives a rounded portrait of the woman in front of us. Sense of waste combines with outrage on behalf of the victims. Subtle elements abound and use of still photography is skilful. Momentarily, we see Varnfield in the exact pose that Hindley adopted for a snapshot over John Kilbride’s grave on Saddleworth Moor. I’m sure similar clever touches went over my head.

Hindley and Brady missed hanging by a matter of months with the last executions in England taking place in August 1964. This multi-layered, insightful piece of writing produced post-show debate in the bar of an intensity I’ve rarely heard. Animated conversations covered capital punishment, the politicization of sentencing, parole, whole-life tariffs and genuineness or otherwise of remorse. The pace had been electric and I would gladly have sat through half as much again.