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Blood on Your Hands (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: Blood on Your Hands

Society: Southwark Playhouse

Venue: Southwark Playhouse. 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD

Credits: By Grace Joy Howarth. Directed by Anastasia Bunce. Presented by Patch Plays.


Blood on Your Hands

3 stars


This is a play which – although it’s fairly gripping – can’t make up its mind what it’s meant to be about.

Kostyantyn (Shannon Smith) is a Ukrainian vet but the only work he can get in Britain is in a Welsh slaughterhouse. He is desperate to get his wife and children out of Ukraine where the Russian invasion is imminent. At work he meets Dan (Phillip John Jones), a complicated young man who has history with one of the protestors at the slaughterhouse gate.

So is the play about the horror of the slaughterhouse and the way it dehumanises people? Patch Plays, notes in the programme, that it is dedicated to staging new writing focusing on themes of animal ethics and the environment. Unsurprisingly, on press night, there were several people in the audience who clearly belong to anti-meat, vegan and animal welfare groups. Tee shirts and other statements were in evidence.

Or is it about the tragedy of the war in Ukraine and how it separates family and causes agonising grief? Arguably that’s the stronger story and when we suddenly get a dramatic slaughter house “kill floor” scene with buckets of stage blood, stabbing knives, projection, menacing sound track and stringy red rags to represent entrails it feels like an interruption which doesn’t belong in this play – although it’s an effective enough statement.

On the other hand, is this a play about family, immigration, British treatment of refugees (Kostyantin’s billet is pretty bleak), friendship or mental health issues? Take your pick.

The best things in this play, which tries so hard to do so much, are the scenes in which we see Smith’s brooding, troubled character (when he smiles it’s like an unexpected glimmer of sunshine) with Jones’s jokey, joshing kind character who is actually profoundly disturbed – arguably, and ultimately, a victim of the work he does. They work very intelligently together.

Three other actors play everything else. Given the subject matter, it’s great to have a Ukrainian actor in the cast: Kateryna Hryhorenko plays Kostyantyn’s wife Nina and her movement work is delightful – there’s some stylised mime in the play. Unfortunately her diction isn’t always clear, particularly in the early scenes. Liv Jekyll finds brittle anger and passion in Eden and Jordan El-Belawi is suitably slimy as the  slaughterhouse manager and deliciously nauseating as Dan’s patronising schoolfriend who has made good in London.

There are flashbacks to show how Nina and Kostyantyn met and the homely relationship which Dan and Eden once enjoyed but these scenes don’t add much.

There’s a lot of blood in this play. It is literally, as well as figuratively, on the hands of Dan and Kostyantyn and all over the floor. Yet when Nina tries to mop it up, we are suddenly aware of a different sort of bloodshed. It’s an over-busy play in other ways too. We get projected headline updates about the situation in Ukraine as well as news broadcasts and abstract projection to remind us where Dan and Kostyantin work.

There’s some excellent writing in Blood On Your Hands but the overall effect is of trying to fire too many guns in too many directions all at once.


First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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