Drawer of Knives

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

22/04/2006 - 20/05/2006

Production Details

By Stephen Sinclair
Directed by Danny Mulheron

When Sarah moves in downstairs from dysfunctional couple Den and Russell, dark passions distil into intense hatred and each character develops strong motives for killing either of the other two. Exploring multiple scenarios, the result is a masterful study of wits and wanton betrayal as the plot flirts with the audience as to who’ll draw a knife first.


Russell                        Paul McLaughlin

Denise                         Lucy Briant

Sarah                           Miranda Manasiadis


Set                              Dennis Heafield
Costumes                    Nic Smillie
Lighting                        Natasha James

Original Music              Mark Austin

Operator                      Natasha James

Fight Chorography       Min Windle

Publicity &
Photogtraphy               Christopher Brougham

Graphic design            Dennis Hearfield

Theatre ,

Approx 1hr 15 mins, no interval

Suspense better suited to screen than stage?

Review by Matthew Wagner 07th May 2006

The Circa Two production of Stephen Sinclair’s Drawer of Knives has a number of things going for it: capable direction, strong performances, and a solid dramatic device.  That device is suspense, suspense over what is real and what is imagined, heightened by the stakes of the plot, which are murderous – that is, we are wondering throughout much of the play whose murder is real and whose is imagined. 

Our options are three: upstairs live the dysfunctional couple Russell and Denise; downstairs the single mother Sarah has moved in.  We have here the makings of a classic love triangle, and a noir-esque thriller – as the tag-line for the production asks, ‘who dies?’ 

As long as we’re in the midst of wondering this, while the suspense is kept alive, the play works.  But – and herein lies the rub, as they say – the play works only as long as the suspense is kept alive.  Such is the danger of this particular device: suspense needs a very precise payoff, and I’m not convinced Drawer of Knives necessarily has it. 

That said, the acting by the entire three-strong cast was rich enough to keep the audience engaged throughout the majority of the 75-minute production.  Paul McLaughlin is convincing as the unstable Russell, at times endearing, at times despicable.  Lucy Briant’s Denise emanates a cold control of her surroundings, while allowing that coldness to remind us that there’s a human being beneath that icy smile.  And Miranda Manasiadis gives us in turns the genuine and the manipulative, the sexy and the dismal. 

The ability of all three to move from one mode of being to another helps create that core sense of suspense on which the play rides.  They ably contribute to building the tension we feel over not only what will happen next, but also what is happening right now.

In the end, however, while I enjoyed this production, I couldn’t help thinking that this kind of tale, with this kind of dramatic device at its core, is better suited to film than theatre.  There is finally something vaguely un-theatrical about the play, as if (the acting that I praise above notwithstanding) the attributes and benefits of the stage are not being fully employed and exploited. 

I still think Drawer of Knives is worth a look, but don’t be too surprised if at the end – beyond asking yourself what, exactly, has just happened – you feel as if you should be watching credits roll by as much as applauding a curtain call.


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Sinclair's tale with a twist

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 30th Apr 2006

Following on from the success of The Bach, which played at Circa Theatre last year, Stephen Sinclair has come up with an another intriguing but totally different play for this year. While there are references to New Zealand place names, the scenario of Drawer Of Knives could take place anywhere and follows the genre of many modern day thriller writers with a surreal twist in its tale.

In the upstairs flat are Russell (Paul Mclaughlin) and Denise (Lucy Briant), a couple whose relationship is anything but happy, made obvious from the wonderfully tense opening moments of the play. In the flat downstairs are Sarah (Miranda Manasiadis) and her 3 month old baby Lou, who have just recently moved in. 

Then the obvious happens – Russell moves in on Sarah. Denise thinks he is out at work, but he spends each day sitting around home brooding. That is till Sarah, who’s also not working, comes upstairs for a visit. 

While initially resisting him, she soon succumbs to Russell’s advances and so the affair begins.  That Denise will find out also becomes obvious – but then the unexpected kicks in, and reality becomes surreal and blurred.  

Through a cleverly devised series of interlinking scenes, Sinclair produces a range of endings that may or may not occur, each involving two of the characters doing away with the third, with baby Lou central to each. 

Sinclair’s terse and sparse dialogue provides far more meaning through the unsaid than what is actually spoken, and it soon becomes clear that there are far more sinister sub-plots at work.  That this all works so successfully is to the credit of director Danny Mulheron and his cast.

Each of the actors appears to revel in their roles, creating an underlying tension through their interactions with each other that is at times nothing short of reverting.

Mclaughlin’s Russell is a broody bully, making the character’s manic mood swings – from menacing to depressed – totally believable. Briant as his partner Denise, with her lithe body dressed in black with knee length boots and long blonde hair – is the epitome of the ice maiden. Her cold stares would cut anyone down at 40 paces, her smirks and sneers equally cutting.

Manasiadis as Sarah from downstairs also gives a very creditable performance, being able to run a whole gambit of emotions as she tries to cope with this dysfunctional couple entering her life. Their overall performances, coupled with the fascinating way Sinclair has structured his play makes this a most engrossing evening’s entertainment.


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Mclaughlin nails Russell in Knives

Review by Lynn Freeman 26th Apr 2006

The thriller genre is one New Zealand playwrights seldom tackle on stage yet it’s a great medium for it.

Being up close and personal with characters who’re at breaking point and capable of mad, bad and dangerous acts, is theatrically exciting. Circa Two is a small and intimate space, bringing the audience even closer to three inherently unstable people trapped in world of love, hate, lust and desperation.

Russell (Paul Mclaughlin) and Denise (Lucy Briant) are a couple in trouble. Many things keep them together but love isn’t one of them. Into their apartment building comes solo mum Sarah (Miranda Manasiadis). They each have something the other ones want desperately and they feed off each other’s insecurities and desperation, secrets and lies.

Mclaughlin nails Russell’s violence-tinged charm while Briant as Denise seems to walk in a halo of impenetrable frost. Manasiadis, in a welcome return to the Wellington stage, helps us to see Sarah for what she really is – no victim but an inadequate mother who’s as scheming and manipulative as her upstairs neighbours.

Stephen Sinclair’s best known for his comedies (The Sex Fiend, Ladies Night, Braindead – the Musical) and Drawer of Knives, while a parable/thriller, has comic touches.

They’re outnumbered though by the disconcerting moments. Drawer of Knives needs to be tighter and tauter, with the series of real/imaginary murder scenarios going on far too long. Other than that though, it’s an unnerving night out at the theatre, with gripping performances guided by the unflinching direction of Danny Mulheron.


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Drawing on self interest

Review by John Smythe 23rd Apr 2006

If you think you have the measures of playwright Stephen Sinclair[1] and director Danny Mulheron[2], forget it. Drawer of Knives is something else again. But what exactly?

When in doubt, check the title. In retrospect I realise it’s not about the contents of a kitchen drawer. It’s about the person, people or circumstances that cause knives to be drawn. There are three characters, all with metaphorical knives in their hands. The question we are left with is, how many are literal? Which, if any, have been used in reality? Who has actual blood on their hands?

Russell (Paul Mclaughlin) purports to design for an advertising company and is a literal drawer of realistic portraits, when he’s on his stabilising medication. Otherwise he’s given to attacking walls with destructive abstraction. Russell may readily be seen as the prime catalyst for drawing the murderous potential from the other two.

Denise (Lucy Briant), his partner of seven years, works in a laboratory. Unable-to-conceive – and whose fault is that? – she sticks by him. Why? Is it out of a deep-set co-dependent need or, as she likes to put it, because leaving him would be letting him off too lightly?

Their new neighbour from the flat downstairs, Sarah (Miranda Manasiadis), the solo mother of baby Lou, is much more expressive of her emotional needs. Respect is the key for her but that starts with self respect and she seems to have a compulsive need to be treated as an object. Perhaps this allows her to feel more justified in doing as she does, or rather seems to do.

The very real common denominator is self interest (the core driver of human behaviour used by fundamentalist economists to legitimise the ‘free market’). In drawing these lethal character portraits, Sinclair confronts us with parts of ourselves we don’t easily own up to in real life. He uses his literary licence to take us on a labyrinthine journey through a gated community of cul-de-sacs labelled ‘what if?’ and ‘what would it take?’

The style is realism but non naturalism (a phrase coined in the mid 1970s by Dennis Potter and colleagues to explain such works as Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective). In this case, Drawer of Knives is a psychological thriller that explores multiple subjective realities. While the objective reality of who actually did what to whom, how exactly, and why, becomes the usual focus of a whodunit, this play prefers to dwell in the realm of possibility. And in so doing, it is riveting.

Mclaughlin finds the essential point of balance between attraction and danger in his compelling portrait of Russell. His sudden breakdowns and outbursts of rage are very dramatic, but not as shocking as the dispassion of his more ‘normal’ behaviour. Briant’s Denise is a clinical ice maiden whose real desires are all the more powerful for taking so long to surface. As the more demonstrative and less devious Sarah, Manasiadis provides the volatile catalyst in Sinclair’s experiment.

Facilitated by Mulheron’s unifying direction, all three subtly answer the ongoing questions that keep arising: Why do they do it? Why to they accept this treatment? What is their real agenda? By playing the psycho-emotional truth of each moment, despite the growing realisation that what is happening cannot be objectively real, the confrontation with the possibilities generated by unfettered self interest delivers a powerful 80-odd minutes of theatre.

Dennis Hearfield’s realistic set design ingeniously finds depth in Circa two’s shallow stage and, with Natasha James’ hyper-real lighting design, he makes the necessarily brown walls of this old house divided into two flats seem chic.

Less well resolved are the games played with time, place and a mystery telephone call which book-ends the play. Left unexplained, they feel like phoney devices. Maybe I missed something. We certainly missed, on opening night most of composer Mark Austin’s original music, lost beneath the hum of the air conditioning units that stabilise the atmosphere in the very intimate Circa Two space. Doubtless this will be rectified, although good circulation will still be needed given the number of cigarettes smoked on stage.

Since it became illegal to smoke in enclosed public places, theatres have either dropped it or faked it. Given their penchant for attacking political correctness, this wilful reinstatement of actual smoking may be a conscious challenge from Sinclair and Mulheron. Will controversy and free publicity ensue?

That detail notwithstanding, Drawer of Knives is a quantum leap for the partnership that began with The Sex Fiend, a farce satirising political correctness co-written by Sinclair and Mulheron some 17 years ago, and resumed with Sinclair’s The Bach, directed at Circa by Mulheron last year. As an acquaintance observed afterwards, this play is the flipside of farce, where there is an objective reality, the audience is more in the know than any one character, and the fun is in seeing who will get caught.

In Drawer of Knives nothing is absolute. Each character dwells within their own subjective reality and the audience is invited to empathise with each while coming to their own subjective conclusions about what has and has not actually happened. More than one delighted opening night punter described it as a "mind fuck", much more effective than the cursory coitus Denise lets Russell use her for, on their red leather couch.

[1] Ladies Night, The Sex Fiend, Blowing It, each co-written; Bellbird, The Bach, written solo …

[2] The Daylight Atheist, The Love of Human Kind, The Bach, It’s a Whanau Thing, The Tutor; Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby on TV …


Danny Mulheron May 4th, 2006

The law is an Ash. It is designed to stop people portraying smoking in case it may be seen as glamourising it. It is a shame we had to cut it as the ciggaretes themselve sometimes became the fulcrum of scene changes, one character picking up where another left off literally. The fake smokes I think are mugwart or some such herb. cheers Danny

Paul McLaughlin May 4th, 2006

The law is an ass. Theatres obviously respect their practitioners and audiences, so have been using fake cigarettes for some time. Once the Smokefree legislation came in those laws threw a blanket ban over any smoking of anything in a workplace, which a theatre is. Theatres have taken legal advice, but the laws are worded such that we cannot even legally smoke these harmless fakes. http://www.moh.govt.nz/smokefreelaw This is censorship, telling the theatre that we cannot represent both past eras where they smoked a lot (try a Noel Coward with no cigarettes) or the present time, where people do still smoke. It highly pisses me off, and were it not for the huge fines the theatre itself would incur (as well as myself) I would have continued to imitate smoking. It strikes me as ludicrous that I would legally be allowed to shoot up heroin, or smoke p, or kill and maim but not simulate the act of smoking.

John Smythe May 3rd, 2006

I'm delighted to hear the fags were fake. For me it comes down to the difference between fantasy and reality. We willingly suspend our disbelief around sex, violence, emotional abuse, etc, because we know it's all make believe and the actors take their bows at the end no worse for the experience. But smoking - before the advent of these fakes - was real, for the actors every night and for the nearby audience on any given night. Real lungs were affected; the loss of oxygen to the brain was real - which to my mind placed a very real moral dilemma on playwrights, for a start: asking a character to smoke was not the same as asking them to ravish, torment or murder. If a safe 'pretend' smoke is available and being used, presumably it does not break the law - so why has it been necessary to stop it in this production? Very perceptive comments on the play by the way Michael, picking up on possible interpretations my brain had not yet fully formed. Thank you!

Michael Wray May 3rd, 2006

Hi Paul. Perhaps Circa should put a note about fake cigarettes in the programme? (Fake cigarettes? Damn, I wish I'd known about these when quitting... might have made it easier ;-) Anyway, I don't smoke (anymore) and can't abide being in the vicinity of cigarettes. But when I go to the theatre, if there is smoking on-stage then I have no problem with it. I'm watching the portrayal of characters whose habits and values are different to my own. Some of those characters smoke and some stab and bury their partners/lovers from the flat downstairs. If a character is written as smoking, then I say smoke away (convincing fake or real) and I would prefer theatre stages to be exempt from the public building laws on smoking. However, I accept I'm probably in the minority. I did wonder why there were cigarettes on the coffee table being unused. When you picked up the ashtray and went to the hidden door to confront what your character thought was an intruder, I assumed that there had been no smoking in order to avoid a mess from ash and butts being flung around. Does that mean you created a mess on the first few performances? On the play itself.... the way that the play ended with the entry into the flat of Russell and Den, my take was that it could be interpreted that we had looped around to the beginning again. On that basis, the woman downstairs with whom Russell originally had problems could also be taken as Sarah herself and we had been watching a loop repeat the whole time. Particularly within the context of Russell's illness, I found it a convincng/pleasing interpretation of the plot. Combined with the three parallel threads after the murder, it reminded me of the theme of Sartre's No Exit - hell is other people. Excellent play, convincing performances. I can't analyse a play in the way John can - I'm just a frequent audience member - but I really enjoyed it.

Paul McLaughlin May 3rd, 2006

We did not use real cigarettes in the two runs of the play before we were forced to stop by a (poorly spelt) letter of complaint. Noone in this co-op sought to gain anything by smoking; we simply sought to portray real people on stage. Audiences would be well advised to know that where we use 'cigarettes' on stage now, they are special fakes made for the film industry which contain absolutely no tobacco or nicotine. The traffic fumes you inhale crossing the road to the theatre would be more toxic than anything you might smell within the auditorium.

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