Steve Pemberton: “The Pillowman and I felt like a match made in heaven”

The stalwart of British dark comedy on joining the West End debut of Martin McDonagh's twisted modern classic

Twenty years ago, Martin McDonagh ventured away from the two Irish trilogies that had turned him into one of the country’s most lauded playwrights. The Pillowman, though it had been publicly read and published since the mid 90s, premiered at the National Theatre in November 2003 and felt like a whole new direction for McDonagh.

Set in an undisclosed but vaguely Eastern European totalitarian police state, the play expanded on the British-Irish writer’s taste for dark comedy, stoking discussions around creative freedoms and censorship. It concerns Katurian, a writer of macabre tales who, along with “slow to get things” brother Michal, is imprisoned and interrogated by Topolski (good cop) and Ariel (bad cop) for the likeness of her work to a spate of recent killings.

As The Pillowman makes its West End debut two decades on, its talking points feel just as pertinent, with fiery debates around culture wars and freedom of speech seemingly spiralling every other week. As this revival’s backing from PEN International reminds us, threats to writers and their work also still goes beyond the realm of the hypothetical.

Paul Kaye, Steve Pemberton and Lily Allen in The Pillowman, 2023. Credit: Johan Persson

Running at The Duke Of York’s Theatre until September, this incarnation is directed by Matthew Dunster, who collaborated with McDonagh in 2015 on Hangmen, and sees Lilly Allen step up as the protagonist after impressing in 2:22 A Ghost Story. But though the multi-faceted star brings winning depth to Katurian, the play’s ominous and comedic powers are driven by Paul Kaye (Ariel) and Steven Pemberton (Tupolski) – two veterans of British dark comedy.

The pair have worked together before on Pemberton’s twisted anthology series Inside No. 9, and their creative partnership flourished during the process of The Pillowman. “We’ve been tubing in every day and we meet up in the local park to run lines safely away from dog walkers and passers by,” Pemberton tells me. “You don’t want to hear that, going through the lines of that particular play from two suspicious looking characters in the park…”

On stage, Kaye gives the brutish Ariel an intimidating presence while leaving enough space for subtlety to hint at a character arc. Pemberton, on the other hand, brings a more understated menace that adds both a bone dry execution to his many funny lines and an increasingly unpredictable level of threat.

Now eight series into Inside No. 9, the Blackburn-born actor and writer has learnt to sharpen his tools of suspense and surprise. “Each time audiences tune in they don’t even know what genre the episode is going to be in. Even midway through, they’re not sure how it’s going to land or where it’s gonna go. And I find that quite thrilling,” he says. As Tupolski, Pemberton has an active role in delivering some sobering shocks in the play. “It makes you feel really alive when you’re watching something like that, you know? You feel like you’re an active spectator rather than a passive one. That’s what I love about it.”

Lilly Allen and Steve Pemberton in The Pillowman, 2023. Credit: Johan Persson

It’s apt that Inside No. 9 plays with form and narrative, given that throughout The Pillowman McDonagh constantly challenges what we should and shouldn’t laugh at – should and shouldn’t gasp at – as the two policemen harass Katurian. Pemberton is charged with one of the biggest balancing acts, delivering some of the play’s most potentially problematic lines while remaining, at heart, a well-meaning detective.

This interplay is something that’s defined Pemberton’s career, ever since he found fame with The League of Gentlemen in the late 90s. “I grew up loving horror films and watching all kinds of black and white horror films on the TV when I was a little boy and yeah, I just have always gravitated towards that. I suppose I think every comedy needs a bit of drama, let’s say, or a bit of darkness or a bit of a twist. And I think every drama needs some comedy. The two go very, very well together. The Pillowman and I felt like a match made in heaven.”

The way he explains it, there’s a sense that Pemberton sidestepped the traditional casting process, so clear was he in McDonagh’s mind for the role. From the off, the 55-year-old was told this would be a highly collaborative process, with both McDonagh and Dunster attending every rehearsal together. “It meant we just got stuck into the characters and the story. Having Martin in the rehearsal room was a real privilege as it meant we were never really having to debate what the author intended.”

Matthew Tennyson and Lily Allen in The Pillowman, 2023. Credit: Johan Persson

In the 20 years since The Pillowman‘s debut, McDonagh has evolved from a ‘punk playwright’ to one of Hollywood’s most respected writers and filmmakers; having created In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and, more recently, The Banshees Of Insherin. Does Pemberton think this crossover with popular cinema can help bring in crowds that might not normally go to the theatre?

“It’s great when when you go to the theatre and you sense that there’s a real mixed audience out there. I think for sure there’ll be there’ll be people coming who know the play historically, there’ll be people coming because of Martin’s name, because they’re fans of his his work generally, and then Lily will bring in a different audience too. Just as long as people are prepared for what kind of play it is… And I think anyone who’s seen any of Martin’s work either on film or stage will know.”

The Pillowman runs until 2 September at The Duke of York’s Theatre, London – find tickets here