By Michael Punter
Directed by Anthony Clark
Venue: Hampstead Theatre
Date: Saturday 12th December 2009
The set for this piece was wonderfully atmospheric, and completely suited a Victorian Christmas ghost story, with several banisters going across parts of the stage at various angles and many layers of black curtain swags. Very creepy, and all in black. The central space had a bed over to the left, a table which kept fairly central but did get moved a couple of times, a bureau back right and several very creepy statues on plinths which were covered with black cloth. The back left area was concealed by a curtain, and could be either the French windows to an otherwise inaccessible terrace or an open space, used for the golf course or similar. To the right was a big black door, which could open on its own if required. The scene was set for thrills and terror.
This play opens with two men. One, Tom Beauregard, an American of the Southern persuasion, claims to be a medium and a Doctor of Spiritual Science. The other, Gabriel Stokes, is a scientist, a natural history professor at Cambridge and keen to write a book that will, once and for all, completely refute Darwin’s preposterous assertion that man is descended from apes by distilling the evidence against from that authoritative scientific tome, the Bible. Not the brightest chimp at the tea party, then.
Her does, however, have an intriguing experience which he wants help with. The story was a bit complicated, and I’m sure I didn’t get all of it, but the gist is this. Stokes, who has lost both his wife and young child, was staying at an old house somewhere on the bleak and desolate Sussex coast. (Bleak and desolate? Sussex?) The house had previously been owned by a chap who was now dead, but who had created a beautiful garden terrace outside his window accessible only through the French windows in his room. A subsequent owner had been involved in dubious practices, despite being a missionary, and had disappeared in Africa, presumed dead. His housekeeper, Mrs Hinchcliffe, still looked after the place and took in paying guests, hence Mr Stokes’s involvement.
Lodged in the very room with the garden terrace outside and dominated by the creepy statues, it’s not long before Stokes is disturbed by lots of banging about in the room above, which had been the missing-in-Africa owner’s workroom. Nobody else hears these banging noises, and then Stokes sees a figure at the windows. He’s pretty scared by all of this, naturally enough (I was holding Steve’s hand a fair bit throughout this play) so he asks Beauregard to come down to Sussex and sort the whole thing out.
Beauregard is keen enough at first, but when Stokes uncovers his trickery during their first séance he decides to leave immediately. A chat with Mrs Hinchcliffe changes his mind, and during an attempt to contact the deceased spirit by the others (Stokes, Mrs H and the maid, Florence) Beauregard returns to witness the denouement.
I must admit the arrival of the ‘ghost’ was very well done, and the choice Stokes makes was pretty much inevitable. While it wasn’t as scary as The Woman In Black, it still had its chills, along with several funny lines and excellent performances from all. The only thing holding it back was the lack of response from the audience who seemed a bit sluggish.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me