in CONVERSATION WITH AN ACID bath murderer
It's a testament to Nigel Fairs’ central performance and beautifully written script that for the first 20 minutes of this play it’s hard to believe John Haigh could be a murderer. The Vampire Killer comes across as a cultured, personable businessman – albeit with a few shady friends – trying to make his way in postwar austerity Britain. It’s only when he pulls a gun on one of his victims – all played brilliantly by Suzanne Procter – that the audience is introduced to the true monster.
IN CONVERSATION WITH AN ACID BATH MURDERER tells the chilling true story of John George Haigh, the infamous 'Vampire killer' of 1949. It was first performed by the Classic Reaction Theatre company in 1999 at the Brighton Festival, transferring to Norwich Playhouse later that year. In 2010 it was revived by 368 Theatre Company at the Lamb Theatre in Eastbourne, also playing in Arundel Jailhouse and in May returned to the Brighton Festival for a two week run in the wine cellars of the Old Ship Hotel, where it won an Argus Angel Award for Artistic Excellence.
An audio version has been released on CD by Big Finish productions and the play will be touring the country in October 2011.
"If you’re looking for something truly chilling to see this Halloween weekend you can’t go far wrong with this true crime tale which tells the story of 1940s serial killer John George Haigh. There’s no doubt that Haigh’s murders, or ‘killings’ as he preferred to call them – were gory affairs as he trussed up bodies, bundled them a into forty-gallon drum and submerged them in concentrated sulphuric acid, believing it would obliterate all evidence of his crimes. So its hard to believe at first that all this evil lurks within the charming, hard-working business-man who’s presented here by writer and actor Nigel Fairs. Haigh is portrayed as something of a success, making good despite the austerity of post-war Britain. He lives in a smart hotel, drives a decent car, and has hooked up with a lovely middle-class girl half his age whose parents obviously adore him. Haigh’s entire life story is told in an hour by Fairs and Suzanne Proctor, who ably portrays three different women, only one of whom survives coming into contact with Haigh. Fairs gives a polished, unsettling performance, at his best when he’s hovering around the fine line between charming and creepy, luring in business deals and victims with the same easy charisma. It’s the structure of the play, the snippets of life story and the slow reveal of the crimes, which makes it so successful. There’s a particularly unnerving moment when it’s revealed that Haigh drank the blood of his victims, siphoning it off into a cup and comparing one with the next as though at a genteel wine tasting. It's a truly gothic touch in an otherwise rather mechanical method of victim disposal. It’s surprising that Haigh’s ‘chamber of horrors’ moniker ‘Acid Bath Murderer’ has outlived the more headline grabbing ‘Vampire of Kensington’. As both writer and performer, Fairs clearly owns this work and his research and genuine interest make for a convincing and accomplished performance. Somehow, then, it’s not a great surprise to find that there’s less than six degrees of separation between portrayer and portrayed – although Fairs didn’t know this when he wrote the play. In Conversation with an Acid Bath Murderer is a quietly terrifying piece of theatre. 368 Theatre Company have made the horrific fascinating with this intelligent investigation into the life of a notorious killer which avoids psychoanalysis and allows the audience space to consider blame and motivation.
THE PUBLIC REVIEWS, October 2011
"It's a testament to Nigel Fairs’ central performance and beautifully written script that for the first 20 minutes of this play it’s hard to believe John Haigh could be a murderer. The Vampire Killer comes across as a cultured, personable businessman – albeit with a few shady friends – trying to make his way in postwar austerity Britain. It’s only when he pulls a gun on one of his victims – all played brilliantly by Suzanne Procter – that the audience is introduced to the true monster. The gloomy wine cellar setting adds real-life chills to the dark story, underscored by a sparse soundtrack and Haigh’s physical closeness to his audience. As narrator, Haigh occasionally tells lies and never truly answers the question of why he did the “killings”, although he delights in his cleverness throughout. The gory mechanics of how he disposed of his bodies is breathlessly told by a wide-eyed forensic scientist (again played by Procter) rather than Haigh himself, with no gratuitous blood-letting onstage. The focus instead is perhaps on the glorification of criminal behaviour – the most shocking part is arguably Haigh’s immortalisation in Madame Tussauds – especially when we hear about the after effects of his actions on his one-time fiancée Margaret."
THE ARGUS, May 2011
IN CONVERSATION WITH AN ACID BATH MURDERER started its life as a descriptive passage I wrote for a youth drama course in 1989 (the passage, where the so-called ‘vampire killer’ describes his ritualistic disposal of Olive Durand Deacon, remains more or less intact). One of my pupils had lent me a book about Haigh and I was intrigued by the man and his motives.
He has haunted me.
Ten years later, whilst writing the full blown play, I discovered that my grandfather had hired Haigh a car and that my great grandfather had put the shackles on him in Lewes Prison! The spooky co-incidences didn’t stop there – the aunt of my friend Richard had been lined up to be Haigh’s next victim and then, a month before I was due to take on the part in the 2010 revival, I fell off my bike and ended up with an identical scar to his!
A life lesson I learnt first working with lifers in Maidstone Prison, reaffirmed later as a psychodynamic counsellor, is that there are no black and whites as far as the human psyche is concerned. What some people dismiss as ‘evil’ always has its roots in the childhood experiences that shape all of our attitudes and moral codes. My job as a playwright, director or actor is to investigate those roots. With Louise Jameson’s insightful direction, I’ve got even closer, I think, to the heart and soul of Haigh.
It’s a fascinating, if sometimes disturbing place to be.
NIGEL FAIRS, January 2011
Marlborough Theatre, Brighton, May 1999
Cast: KEITH DRINKEL (Haigh), TONY HAWTHORNE (Archie Henderson), JOANNA WOODBRIDGE (Margaret), ANNIEWENSAK (Rose Henderson) Director NIGEL FAIRS, Stage Manager HANNAH LEACH, Set Construction ROBIN NORMAN, Producer DI NORMAN
Norwich Playhouse, November 1999.
Cast: KEITH DRINKEL (Haigh), TONY HAWTHORNE (Archie Henderson), JOANNA WOODBRIDGE (Margaret), ANNIE WENSAK (Rose Henderson) Director NIGEL FAIRS, Stage Manager PADDY CRAWLEY, Wardrobe Associate JACKIE ROUGHTON, Set Construction ROBIN NORMAN, Assistant Stage Manager KAVISHA ADATEN, Producer DI NORMAN
Lamb Theatre, Eastbourne, May 2010.
Cast: NIGEL FAIRS (Haigh), SUZANNE PROCTER (Margaret, Rose, Olive) Director LOUISE JAMESON, Stage manager CHRIS LEACH
Arundel Jailhouse, October 2010.
Cast: NIGEL FAIRS (Haigh), CAL JAGGERS/ LINDA BAKER (Margaret, Rose, Olive) Director LOUISE JAMESON, Sound & light TORSTEN HOJER
Big Finish CD, May 2011.
Cast: NIGEL FAIRS (Haigh), SUZANNE PROCTER (Margaret), LOUISE JAMESON (Rose), RICHARD FRANKLIN (Archie), DAVID WARWICK (Ted). Director LOUISE JAMESON, Sound design & music NIGEL FAIRS, with vocals by EMMA GRAY.
Brighton Festival, May 2011.
Cast: NIGEL FAIRS (Haigh), SUZANNE PROCTER (Margaret, Rose, Olive) Director LOUISE JAMESON, Sound & light TORSTEN HOJER