The gloomy old vaults hidden down a dark alley behind Waterloo station are an apt setting for this whimsical and beguiling, but not especially gripping, kidnap thriller, directed by Joe Hufton and adapted from John Fowles' psychologically complex novel. While the game-playing and negotiating between the victim and her butterfly-collecting captor provide uncomfortable entertainment, the story's true horror gets lost amid long periods of light domestic comedy. You have to pinch yourself occasionally to remember what you're watching. That's kind of the point, though. The game for the audience becomes guessing each character's motivations and secret thoughts as The Collector chugs along merrily in this railway tunnel.
It's clear early on that Daniel Portman's Frederick isn't your average Josef Fritzl-type sex monster, and Lily Loveless's pretty art student, Miranda, isn't your run-of-the-mill terrified hostage. Or perhaps it's just that she develops Stockholm Syndrome super-fast, engaging with Frederick from the get-go, almost affectionately at times. He's an apparently harmless amateur entomologist who has won the lottery and so has the money and time to act out what he presumes must be everyone's fantasy, to kidnap a beautiful woman. He stores her in the basement of the country house he's just bought, which contains an appealingly ragtag, Bohemian-looking collection of books, armchairs, art, captured insects, lamps, junk and a single bed. A dingy Austrian homemade prison cell, it ain't.
Portman is good at playing a nerd but for most of the play lacks the crucial fear factor. When he gets angry towards the end he becomes more villainous and as such is easier for us to understand. His motivations aren't money or sex, although a sexual undercurrent runs through the drama despite his seeming asexuality. Loveless, meanwhile, acts a character who rarely seems particularly traumatised or seriously dedicated to escaping. She responds to his eccentricities at various times with concern, impatience, sulking, scorn, laughter, sometimes sounding like a nagging or prick-teasing wife.
She even says that "part of me is glad this has happened," then jokes "everyone should be locked up for a few weeks." The intriguing challenge for the audience is to figure out how much of her words to take at face value, to discern what she really means from what she makes up merely to dupe him and also to rally herself to get through this nightmare. To what extent is her bubbliness just a coping strategy? One hundred percent, you might think, but there are times she appears to be genuinely at home with him.
There's plenty to think about, then, but the fairly implausible plot and unlikely responses of the two characters aren't helped by acting from both which, while decent enough, lacks fizz. The menace sorely lacking for most of the piece only appears in the second half, when the action finally explodes into life. Until that point, there's little sense of gut-wrenching, debilitating fear from Loveless's Miranda, nor nearly enough psychotic instability from Portman's Frederick. The play's structure of Frederick's mini-narrations interjected throughout the action also frustratingly slows the tempo, and doesn't actually give us much more information than we can glean from the drama anyway. This absorbing story works better as an atmospheric novel, with its dual interior perspectives, than as a play, but this production in an amazing venue is still well worth seeing.