Jean Genet was well placed to write a chilling cell block drama, having done time himself. A thief and prostitute in early life, he was sprung from prison after lobbying by fans Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau.
Written in 1947, Haute Surveillance (Deathwatch) was his first stage play, examining the idea of a murderer as a hero – even a god – within a prison environment. David Rudkin has rewritten his 1987 translation in the light of revisions made by Genet himself shortly before his death.
And in Geraldine Alexander's taut and brilliantly acted production, the intense claustrophobia and the torments that three confined people inflict on one another are horribly compelling.
There's a Dr Evil moment early on, where the maximum security jail door accidentally swings open, but this is smoothly dealt with, and these ill-starred souls circle their prison with an ever-present menace, choreographed by movement director Hubert Essakow.
Physical trainer and fight director Neil Hewitt has also brought them up to scratch. Tom Varey as indomitable murderer Green-Eyes clambers effortlessly around the prison bars with the commando-style strength that has helped make him such a divinity in the prison, despite the death penalty that is only weeks away.
Joseph Quinn excels as jittery Maurice. Like an imprisoned Puck, he's a taunting, flirting boy who knows the provocative power of his pretty face – but ultimately puts far too much faith in Green-Eyes.
Also jockeying for position in Green-Eyes' favour is Lefranc, played by Danny Lee Wynter with a deadly, simmering fury that belies his vulnerability and unexpected literary skill as a letter writer.
A less sinister prison guard than the beautiful Emma Naomi is hard to imagine, but her deliberate twitching of the cell's newly-made bed into disarray speaks volumes.
Lighting designer David Plater has not allowed himself to be restricted by Genet's own stage directions that there should be no clever lighting, and his work ensures that the darkest secrets of this cell are starkly illuminated.
Lee Newby's set design creates a prison cell that's surrounded by plush red drapes and bright lights, and this circus-like imagery is reinforced by Simon Slater's sound design, making us question our role as spectators of this sinister world.
The sawdust and straw-strewn floor also brings to mind a dirty and ill-managed zoo. But though their animal instincts are scarcely under control, these are very much men. Their rages, desires, rivalries and ambitions are played out with such conviction that the ghastly closing scene becomes simply unwatchable.
This is masterly work from Alexander and her cast.
Deathwatch runs at the Printroom at the Coronet until 7 May.