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Friday, June 14, 2024

Theatre review: Butcher has depth worth exploring just below its thriller surface

Agatha Christie meets Simon Wiesenthal in a rare stage thriller

Theatrical thrillers are a rare breed. Good ones are even rarer. Fortunately, Nicolas Billon’s Butcher is one of the better ones. It is also a difficult play to write about, as much of its pleasures comes from the seemingly endless twists in Billon’s story; to reveal any but the most basic would be to spoil its impact.

The story begins on Christmas Eve in a Toronto police station. A man in a uniform, wearing a Santa hat, has been dropped off by a couple of kids. Around his neck is a butcher’s hook, and the business card of a local copyright lawyer, who is summoned to the station. Speaking in a foreign language, a translator is called in to help solve the mystery.

From this point, Billon takes immense pleasure in a tortuously fun game of one-upmanship with himself. Just when you think you might have things figured out, he throws another curveball. And that is only on this play’s surface, as there is much more for those who want to dig a little deeper.

Comments on language, justice versus revenge, and even a meta-theatrical element about acting, are some of the additional treasures that await. What makes Butcher so interesting though is in how well it works solely as entertainment (if this play’s subject matter can be considered as entertainment).

But therein lies the one major issue some audience members may have with Billon’s play. Given the very serious real-life subject it tackles, does its entertainment value diminish or minimize those very subjects? If we were to see Butcher play out on television, or even on the large screen, there is little doubt it would be accepted for its pure entertainment value. But this is theatre, and should we expect more?

Lindsey Angell as Elena in Nicolas Billon’s Butcher. Photo by Tim Matheson
Lindsey Angell as Elena in Nicolas Billon’s Butcher. Photo by Tim Matheson

Part of the answer may be in the cast, and while the quartet director Kevin McKendrick has assembled is largely up to the challenge, there are a couple missed opportunities to help elevate the play beyond pure entertainment.

As the lawyer, Noel Johansen feels flat against Lindsey Angell’s Elena, and as the two sides to the play’s central debate, it is problematic. Where Angell commits, there is something missing from Johansen’s performance which would allow us to feel connected to him and his plight.

As the police inspector, Daryl Shuttleworth rings false at times, but it is difficult to say whether it is by design or not. As the mysterious man in the Santa hat, Peter Anderson feels the most authentic, even when we don’t understand most of what he says.

There are also a couple of other aspects of Billon’s play which provides diminishing returns, including the flashback at its conclusion which feels unnecessary, and the conversations which take place over cellphone drag tended to drag. The slow-motion scenes though added some welcome theatrical interest.

Set designer David Roberts gives us a functional police office, although it too provides some clues to the unfolding mystery.

Like a good Agatha Christie novel, it is not surprising to know it it is in its final pages where Billon’s play really excites. But where Butcher really shines comes to those who may want to discover the hidden depths lying just below this thriller’s surface, and in the questions it elicits.

Butcher by Nicolas Billon. Directed by Kevin McKendrick. A Prime Cuts Collective production, presented by The Cultch. On stage at The Cultch’s Historic Theatre (1895 Venables Street, Vancouver) until March 31. Visit for tickets and information.

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