Writer-directors Adam Brace and Sebastian Armesto’s The Four Stages of Cruelty is based on Hogarth’s sequence of engravings of the same name. In these, the central figure of Tom Nero is first seen as a child torturing a dog; next whipping a horse; graduating to murder; and in the last scene, after his execution, being dissected publicly as a dog eats his discarded organs. It's a pretty brutal series of pictures but Hogarth's intended moral has apparently been a subject of discussion. Taking the pictures' various locations as their cue, Brace and Armesto have opted for a relatively sympathetic approach to the protagonist, fleshing out his story by suggesting society's cruelty sows the seeds of his downfall. We first meet Tom (played by cute Richard Maxted and his attention-seeking nipples) as a child watching a hanging, where the crowd's jeers and gruesome descriptions of different deaths they've seen would seem to lead naturally to the boy being cruel to a dog. After a life of being exploited Tom ends up a criminal until, betrayed by his girlfriend (Stephanie Brittain,) he kills her, and the opening scene is repeated but with him in the starring role.
In the Arcola's smaller studio this impressively turns a series of four still, if very detailed, images, into a two-hour show and the ensemble of nine work hard bringing it to life (and grisly death) acting a variety of roles and providing the music. Actually the show's not quite as gory as I'd expected although a couple of skinned rabbits and a real-looking heart might make some people queasy. Instead it's a very lively, grimy 18th-Century morality tale with darkness but a fair bit of wit to keep things going along. All things told it's another hit for the new Studio 2, which has endeared itself to me a lot more than the new Studio 1 has since the theatre moved.
The Four Stages of Cruelty by Adam Brace and Sebastian Armesto, based on engravings by William Hogarth, is booking until the 24th of June at Arcola Studio 2.