In a theatre scene as wonderfully diverse as London’s, filled as it is with all manner of musicals and revivals of classics, there’s something quite reassuring about seeing some new writing about a couple of blokes. Blood On Your Hands tells the story of chatterbox Welsh slaughterhouse worker Dan (Phillip John Jones) and his introverted new co-worker Konstantyn (Shannon Smith), who meet one lunch break to form an unlikely friendship in this intriguing but flawed tragedy.
Konstantyn is a migrant worker from Ukraine, newly arrived in rural Wales at a time when Vladimir Putin is massing forces on his country’s border, but who nonetheless has a desperate hope to earn enough to bring his wife Nina (Kateryna Hryhorenko) and their young children to the country to start a new life. Twenty-five-year-old Dan, meanwhile, is stuck in his small town after “getting into a bit of trouble” with drugs as a teenager. Nobody will employ him but the draconian local abattoir, whose low pay and grim conditions have ground his mental health thin, despite a relentlessly cheery exterior.
The strongest thing about this production is the relationship between the two leads, who are both sensitive types trapped behind a tough exterior. Jones does a lot of the heavy lifting to keep the energy and pace of the production up in scenes where he is faced by his often-mute co-worker, or his archetypally evil manager (Jordan El-Balawi). Smith is equally impressive in his ability to project pain and trauma in a character who says very little.
The chemistry between the leads is magnetic and subtly built through searching eye-contact and an evident shared yearning for fellow humanity. Grace Joy Howarth’s script slowly establishes depth to the relationship through everyday, casual discourse, reminding us that even those encountering some of the worst that life has to offer still live most of their days through the quotidien.
An atmosphere of relentless pessimism is slowly built as we learn the stories of our two leads, before events begin to get overwhelmed by other elements of the production. A parallel, insubstantially drawn narrative of life back in Ukraine is thrown into the mix, and Anastasia Bunce’s somewhat over-excited direction blends the action with dramatic vignettes of daily life in the abattoir, and uncertain images of writhing, coughing bodies whose provenance are not totally clear.
Projections of world leaders talking about the war in Ukraine are thrown in for good measure and the narrative jumps erratically between the past and the present, the domestic and the public. By the last quarter, an atmosphere of suspense shifts towards melodrama and things begin to lag.
If only it had stuck to this careful worldbuilding, with other plot details merely hinted at, then Blood On Your Hands could be something really special. What we have instead remains both a hugely empathetic portrait of damaged people and an imaginatively conceived, continent-spanning saga that could create a great storyboard for a TV miniseries. But it is too much to be crammed into 100 minutes of fringe theatre with no interval.
At Southwark Playhouse until 3 February; tickets 0207 407 0234