Ali Wright, VAULT
Photo credit: Ali Wright

At first glance, a gay serial killer (who also committed cannibalism and necrophilia) isn’t the most obvious choice for the subject of a 60-minute play. It’s something that should ideally have a degree of sensitivity to it, so as not to sensationalise their actions or make some sort of anti-hero out of them – instead finding an unexpected angle on the killer, the victims or the people left behind.

In Nick Bruckman’s debut play Pufferfish, you get a combination of all three. It tells the story of American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (nicknamed the Milwaukee Monster and the Milwaukee Cannibal), the murderer of 17 young men during the 1980s, as well as one of his victims (Chris), and the sister left waiting for him to come back (Anne). The play recounts details of several of Dahmer’s victims’ deaths, going over some of his methods of getting the men to his flat and how he worked up to killing them – as well as what he would do to dispose of the bodies. All this is framed by Chris feeling unfulfilled in his life as a dancer, feeling smothered by his sister and wanting to meet a man who will treat him in a very particular way; like he’s everything & nothing, something to be used but also needed. The answer comes when he meets the guy with an aquarium: Jeffrey Dahmer.

The play does begin in a rather discordant manner – with fish tanks, peeling apples, and baking pies – as Dahmer (Jackson Milner) tries to work through how things all started for him in a methodical manner, and Anne & Chris (Asha Reid & Arian Nik) are introduced to the mix. It’s a bit difficult to get a grip on (though, bizarrely, it’s made rather entertaining thanks to a superb cast), but there’s a moment where it all suddenly clicks into place and the piece as a whole starts to make more sense. It’s a slightly risky gambit for an hour-long show, but overall I think it pays off. This more abstract approach allows many different strains of Dahmer’s story to be told, without it ever trying to apologise for his actions or make him particularly likeable – the real focus comes on Anne, as she sacrifices her life waiting for Chris to come back, trying to distract herself with baking.

Thanks to Charlotte Espiner’s design, the theatre has a very striking look. The performance space is filled with a marble-effect platform & plinth, as well as a set of marble-effect torsos on meat hooks (with & without heads) – I didn’t count them, but presumably they’re representative of the 17 lives Dahmer took, and his penchant for keeping various parts of the young men’s bodies after their deaths. Gillian Tan has provided a wonderful aquarium projection that displays on the side of the plinth, as well as some atmospheric lighting design. The effect is completed by Tom Foskett-Barnes’ compositions.

It’s a challenging play, for sure, and not for the faint-hearted (especially if you subsequently decide to look up the full story – seeing Dahmer’s actions written down coldly in black & white is almost worse than hearing a description of them or seeing them depicted), but it’s an intriguing piece of theatre nonetheless.

Ali Wright, VAULT
Photo credit: Ali Wright

My verdict? An abstract look at the life of Jeffrey Dahmer, and the effect of loss on the people who are left behind – a challenging play, but one that’s worth a watch.

Rating: 4*

Pufferfish runs at the VAULT Festival until 10 March 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.

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