London's chemsex scene explored in queer noir 'Tumulus' - review

'A captivating and funny whodunnit'.



It’s always intriguing to walk into a space, which is already set up for action. As we enter the Cage of the Vaults to see Tumulus, the new, appropriately-dubbed Queer Noir piece by Christopher Adams, we are met by two men in very short shorts offering some kind of Lucozade-concoction, perfectly setting the scene for the next 60 minutes.

The play bursts into action from the get go and we are immediately thrown into the world of north London’s chemsex underworld with rapid dialogue and whooshing pieces of set, expertly manoeuvred by the actors. Anthony Guest (Ciarán Owns) is one the men involved in the so-called Grindr scene, but not a character we are usually faced with in production around this topic. Refreshingly he’s intelligent, particular and a little peculiar, instead of the messy warning sometimes portrayed.

Anthony hears noises in his head, like the ocean or time-bomb. He takes GBL on the weekends to quiet them but insists it doesn’t affect his job or his life negatively. It did however end his relationship and to the audience he seems in crisis; especially when he starts having visions of an ex-lover, George, who was found dead on the Tumulus of Hampstead Heath. On the persuasion of the apparition and the promise that he can top the noise in his head, Anthony sets out on an adventure to help find George’s killer in a Mrs-Marple-esque whirl.

The piece is almost a monologue of Anthony’s memories and mental manifestations, with supporting actors Ian Hallard (Doctor Who, Sherlock) and Tom Rhys Harries (Chewing Gum, Jekyll and Hyde) brilliantly playing over 30 characters with various accents and inflections. This device could become confusing but both Hallard and Harries expertly alter their voices and characterisation, meaning we are always 100 per cent sure who is speaking. An interesting voice-changing contraption is also used, but falls flat and is perhaps unnecessary, when the actors are doing a good enough job without it.


Owens as Anthony holds the entire play skilfully, taking us through the ups and downs of his journey and never losing our attention. His portrayal is charismatic and just-proper-enough to endear us to his mumbling poshness without alienating us. This is undeniably aided by Adams’s well-crafted script filled with witty one-liners and bullet-speed dialogue.

Structurally the play can sometimes become a little muddied with one or two red herrings leaving us feeling somewhat cheated, but overall it keeps us gripped to our seats – a friend literally gripped my leg at one point as a plot twist was revealed. Matt Steinberg’s direction is clever, using props, lights set and sound to colour the world with understandably limited resources. His use of space begins well but devices like twirling tables go from interesting to obvious as we reach the mid-point of the play. Sometimes we feel the dynamic plateau and become less energetic, which is a shame after the initial explosion of excitement, but this is soon picked up and builds to an exciting, unexpected crescendo, which made at least half the audience audibly gasp.

As a whole the play is fun yet interesting and whilst it touches on the serious topic or chemsex culture and points out potential dangers, it doesn’t endeavour to pass judgement or preach to the audience. A definite must-see this captivating and funny whodunit is bound to have legs after the Vault Festival and I’m excited to see where it goes next.

Rating: 4/5