The year is 1959 and the murderess Elyese Dukie (Lucy Roslyn) is languishing on Death Row in Texas. Alone in her prison cell, she suddenly fantasises that a 2013 Fringe audience from C Nova has materialised in front of her. It is undeniably awkward, but she will do all of the talking.
She is rather like a fascinating new au pair who is telling an audience of attentive children all about her life. If only we could join her apparent alter ego John Hayes in the Wild West, as he is biting down bourbon in gunslinging saloons. Instead we are stuck in this prison with her old self, wondering how somebody so dazzling could slow down her life to live with prison monotony.
We will be mesmerised by Elyese’s sad dark eyes and her sad handsome grin. This grin will always remain as spellbinding as Jack Nicholson’s. She looks as unnervingly fascinating as your own image in a mirror; she clicks when she smiles and she whimpers when her heart thumps. She can picture her heart bursting out of her chest and hitting a judge in the face. We are consigned the role of a potentially more sympathetic jury, or of one disentangled from legal tape.
In the middle of this show everything is drowned out by a barrage of overhead gunfire. The Tattoo is coming to an end up at the castle. Roslyn should have incorporated this into the performance, perhaps by making out that some of her escaping fellow prisoners were being shot at the perimeter fence.
I could see through Roslyn’s accent but not to the extent that I could tell what was underneath it. She is actually from Coventry. The forte of Roslyn’s ambitious monologue is ultimately its detail. Her portrait of Elyese is sparkling, but there is not much of a credible character beneath the surface. Her writing is flamboyant and somewhat Faulkneresque, but the pink icing cannot obscure an essentially stodgy cake.
Elyese’s tragedy begins to sound like gossip, with its references to dull husbands and bitchy prison guards. After a while I was happy to hear rather than listen to it. Her sexuality is overly theatrical and not really all there. She is too hard and shrewd to be a victim, and so it would not be in character to recount the forces which had determined her descent into crime. Yet we are not given any alternative means of attributing such violence and passion to a lady who appears to have her head so screwed on. The murders finally come across as tragic misfortunes rather than as acts of evil.
Stylistic exuberance has been a signature of gay fiction since before Oscar Wilde was sent to jail. At its most successful “The State Versus John Hayes” concedes to this. When the novelty of the performance fades, however, we may begin to fade out of the prison cell.