Toby Whithouse: Executioner Number One review

The new black comedy from Being Human’s Toby Whithouse is prescient, powerful and packed with laughs...

You’ll know an Ian or two. The protagonist of Toby Whithouse’s new one-man show might remind you of an uncle that you tried not to argue with a Christmas, or a work colleague whose beliefs wind you up on the regular. Ian is a man that’s had enough with ‘lefties’, experts, women and the ‘corduroy brigade’. His opinions on what’s right for this country are not open to change.

But this isn’t a Brexit story. Although the parallels are obvious, Executioner Number One is actually a scarily prescient concept piece that Whithouse (the creator of Being Human and a regular Doctor Who scribe) has had in his head for years. The show – which is on for a couple of weeks at the Soho Theatre in London – imagines Britain living with the results of a very different referendum.

Much like that fateful vote the UK undertook last June, the one in Whithouse’s play consists of just one question: should Great Britain reinstate the death penalty for murder?  

Whithouse’s play posits that, if a vote like this had been taken as a snap reaction to the IRA bombings of Birmingham and Guildford in 1974, the British public would’ve approved it by an historic landslide. That’s the backstory, which Whithouse uses as backdrop for some pitch-black satirical comedy. 

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As the show opens, it feels more like a stand-up gig than a political piece, with Whithouse bringing shades of David Brent (particularly that tricky blend of loathsomeness and likeability) to the character of Ian. He’s an ambitious but awkward hangman, living in the modern day, who has his eye on the top job in his field: the hallowed role of Executioner Number One.

Gallows humour abounds in the hour that follows, as Ian introduces us to the ins and outs of his trade through something akin to a stream-of-consciousness ramble. And between the laughs, you’ll find that Whithouse is prodding at some close-to-home questions about accountability, opinions, and the slippery slope of societal decline.

If there’s a flaw, it’s that you’d like to know a bit more about the other characters in Ian’s story. Whithouse does a couple of alternate voices to convey different players, and one of them is so intriguing that I wished there was more of him. The third act resolution, linked to that same chap, also feels a tad too abrupt. But it does get its point across. 

The design from Andrew Purcell is sublime; employing props and secret compartments in the set to ensure that one man talking at you never grows dull. Chahine Yaveron’s lighting deserves praise too, but it would be spoiler-y of me to explain why. The sound design from Paul Freeman provides some great moments as well, particularly when Ian gets his iPod Nano out. Again, I won’t get into the whys of that, but suffice it to say that a hearty chuckle was had by all.

An ear for black comedy is absolutely essential for an audience member here, and at the busy press showing it seemed like everyone had one. I can imagine a few of the more risqué lines will have the occasional person squirming, but there’s normally something broader afterwards to even it out. And it’s clear at all times that Ian is not a man to idealise. He’s a satirical stooge in a cynical system, not a role model. 

Ian is a wonderful creation, it must be said. Imagine if that right-aligned acquaintance that you try to ignore on your Facebook feed ended up in a position of power, then add some sardonic humour and an awkward workplace hierarchy dynamic, and you might almost have a decent image of him. 

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None of these descriptions can quite to do justice to what Whithouse has created here, though. I’ve always enjoyed his sense of humour on screen, but for my money he’s never created a character this gut-bustingly hilarious. And to achieve this level of laughs in the same breath as he tackles huge issues is really a sight to behold. It’s masterful stuff.

Executioner Number One lives and dies on that solitary recital at the heart of it, and thankfully Whithouse pulled one hell of a performance out the bag here as well as penning the script. He brings his slimy-yet-somehow-loveable professional killer creation to life in a truly genuine way. You’ll want to hate him, and you’ll quite possibly disagree with him, but you won’t be able to stop your sides from splitting.

If it wasn’t clear from the rest of this review, let me be blunt: you should really check this show out while you can. It’s a dystopian dramady that feels very close to home, and you won’t want to miss it. 

Executioner Number One is playing at the Soho Theatre until Saturday 15th April. Tickets can be found here.


4 out of 5