Classic Ghosts – April 2014

Experience: 7/10

Directed by Michael Lunney

Middle Ground Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 14th April 2014

This was a double bill. The first play was an adaptation by Margaret May Hobbs of M R James’ short story Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, accompanied by The Signalman, adapted by Francis Evelyn from the story by Charles Dickens. We’ve enjoyed M R James’ work before – A Pleasing Terror and A Warning To The Curious were both good, chilling fun – and we were keen to see how this tale would work adapted into a play; the earlier performances were both narrations of the stories.

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A Warning To The Curious – May 2013

Experience: 7/10

By M R James

Performed by Robert Lloyd Parry

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Thursday 9th May 2013

A companion piece to A Pleasing Terror, this evening’s stories performed by Robert Lloyd Parry were Lost Hearts and A Warning To The Curious, one of M R James’ best known stories; it’s certainly been done on TV at least once to my knowledge, and a very scary story it is too.

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The Turn Of The Screw – February 2013

Experience: 6/10

By Henry James, adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Directed by Lindsay Posner

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Wednesday 13th February 2013

This story has two main directions, the psychological and the supernatural; this production took the supernatural path and did it reasonably well. The effects were good, ranging from a face appearing at the window in a sudden flash of light and papers flicked off a desk to chalk writing by itself on the blackboard and Quint joining the Governess in bed. There was a fair amount of tension, although it wasn’t maintained for the whole performance; I certainly won’t be losing any sleep.

It took a while to set up the story. The opening scene was set in Sackville’s office, where he was interviewing a young woman for the post of governess to his deceased sister’s two children. He was a strange man; he clearly liked his pleasures, and having travelled in the East he was also able to introduce ideas such as people having a predetermined destiny and the return of a soul. Sometimes he seemed to be making a pass at the woman and at others he wasn’t interested – most peculiar. The Governess came across as a bit nervy, but of the two I’d have said Sackville was the one to steer clear of.

At Bly, Mrs Grose (Gemma Jones) was the kindly, reliable sort, and there was just enough hesitation in her manner to indicate some unseen trouble. Flora was the first of the children we met; she was cute and bright with a fondness for creepy-crawlies but nothing out of the ordinary for that time and place, apart from her strange foreknowledge that her brother Miles would be arriving that day, a week before the end of term.

We never learned the full reason for Miles being expelled – it was couched in general terms – but the young man who arrived soon after Flora’s departure seemed perfectly normal, and with good manners to boot. He was a bit precocious, but that can happen with the privately-educated sons of the wealthy. The childrens’ behaviour did become stranger, and with the appearance of the ghosts it was evident that they were both under some kind of spell.

The interval came after the first appearances of Quint in the flashes of lightning from a sudden storm. The housekeeper recognised the Governess’s description of the man, and just as she was telling the Governess that he was dead, the children burst into the room, laughing. Creepy. (I admit to holding onto Steve’s arm a number of times during the performance – this was one of them.)

More appearances occurred in the second half, with the children clearly being affected by them and Mrs Grose, despite seeing nothing herself, evidently believing they were happening. The Governess’s religious fervour was starting to emerge, and her belief that the children had to be saved from evil at all costs was becoming as scary as the apparitions. With matters coming to a head, Flora was taken away by Mrs Grose, leaving the Governess to confront Miles in a last attempt to force him to turn from the dark side by confessing what had got him expelled from school. He wouldn’t do it, and with Quint leering at them through the window, the Governess had to take desperate measures to ‘save’ her charge.

The ending was less gripping than I would have expected, and from some of the comments I heard, others weren’t clear what had happened. I felt this adaptation hadn’t quite found the right balance; the supernatural stuff just isn’t as powerful on stage nowadays without creating a tense atmosphere, and that aspect was underwritten for me. There was too much normality, and the Governess in particular was a blank slate, making it hard to relate to her experiences. There were hints of her background, but not enough to make a difference, and the effects, while good, were not enough on their own to keep the tension going.

The set worked reasonably well. They used a circular stage with a revolve which had a wall across it, making it easier to change to different locations – the office, drawing-room, schoolroom, etc. In a curve round the back and above the stage were some windows and broken masonry, suggesting the old country house setting. The lake was created by a little jetty with a boat tied to it, backed by some tall grasses. The costumes looked appropriate for period and class, as far as I could tell.

Although the revolve usually helps with quick changes to the set, I found the changes this time were a little slower than I expected, and that made the production seem bitty, which contributed to the reduced tension. The performances were fine, but I probably wouldn’t see this adaptation again without good reason.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Haunting – November 2012

8/10

Adapted from the ghost stories of Charles Dickens by Hugh James

Directed by Hugh Wooldridge

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 20th November 2012

Another splendid adaptation of Dickens tonight, this time by Hugh James. He’s taken Dickens’ various ghost stories, plus some atmospheric bits from the novels, and blended them into a really creepy evening’s entertainment, complete with special effects. For an audience used to compelling 3D CGI in films nowadays, it may seem a bit tame, but I found it tremendously scary – Steve’s hand is expected to make a full recovery. The performances were very good, and although some of the lighting effects seemed a bit strange, the story was so well told that I was gripped from the start.

I won’t give too much away (I hope). The two-person story concerned a young man, David Filde (James Roache) and an older one, Lord Gray (David Robb). Lord Gray had recently succeeded to the title after the death of his father, and he was back in England to wrap up the estate and sell off the remaining assets – the books, the house, etc. – so that he could clear his father’s debts and return to India, where he had established himself as a businessman. David Filde was the nephew of the book dealer who had sold the late Lord Gray many of the books which lined his study walls, and having been trained in the same business, had been sent by his uncle to catalogue and remove the books for sale. After a short while, David began to hear strange sounds, a voice asking him to “help me” and the like, and with only four days left before Lord Gray returned to India, the pressure soon mounted to unravel the mystery in time.

The set was detailed and elaborate. It represented the study where the older Lord Gray had spent much of his time, with a bedroom off it in which he had actually died. There was a surprising amount of humour in this production, and the current Lord Gray’s casual reference to the fact that the bed young David would be sleeping in was the one his father had died in was one of the early laughs. From the right: tall double doors to the hall, bookcases with steps up to them, a small dais in front of the central French windows where stood the desk with an armchair on the audience side, a large globe on a stand in the corner, the double doors to the bedroom, and more book shelves surrounding the fireplace. A portrait of the late Lord Gray hung over the fireplace, and there was a very strong resemblance to his son. Another armchair stood beside the fire, and there was the skeleton of a tree outside the windows, which were smeared with age. The room had fallen into such neglect that it had lost part of the roof – a chandelier lay front right on the floor, draped with cobwebs and dust. At the top of the walls were some broken planks, and a thick film of dust with cobweb trim was visible on most of the books. As the play progressed, and David sorted out more of the books, gaps appeared on the shelves and a couple of packing cases materialised near the doors to the hall.

The effects were not too surprising – books falling off shelves and doors opening and closing on their own and suchlike – but they were well used, and the plot unfolded with masterful skill. We had some ideas at the interval, and weren’t completely off the mark as it turned out, but there was plenty still to learn in the second half and the revelations were well done. The final scene put a whole new slant on the events we’d seen, and we were very happy with our evening’s thrills and chills.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Pleasing Terror – October 2012

8/10

By M R James

Performed by Robert Lloyd Parry

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Thursday 4th October 2012

Robert Lloyd Parry basically narrated two of M R James’ ghost stories, one in each half, and yet it was a very enjoyable evening in the theatre. The set was very simple: a chair, a table, some candles and a coat stand behind were all that was needed – the actor did the rest. He sat in the chair before the start and waited there under a blanket until the start of the performance, then he emerged and began to tell us the story of Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book, in the role of the young Cambridge antiquary who experiences the strange events of the story. The lighting was dim, and as the story progressed he snuffed out a candle from time to time, making the stage a fraction darker. It was a very atmospheric re-telling; not as dramatic as the modern horror film genre but still enthralling and spine-tingling.

The second story, The Mezzotint, was connected to the first by the Cambridge man referring to the strange behaviour of some Oxford men he knew; this strange behaviour included spending time on the golf course and then having long conversations about the game afterwards. It was nice to have these touches of humour lightening the tone. The story of a picture which changed to show the details of a gruesome event from the past was just as atmospheric as the first, and although these tales may seem old-fashioned, I prefer this gentle building of tension. The consummate skill of James’s story-telling came out well in this splendid performance, and we bought the two DVDs to allow us to recapture the pleasure in the future.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Pit And The Pendulum – September 2011

7/10

By: Edgar Allen Poe, adapted by John Goodrum

Directed by: John Goodrum

Company: Rumpus Theatre Company

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Saturday 24th September 2011

Before seeing this production, the film, starring Vincent Price, was still in our memories. Tonight’s performance has certainly pushed those to one side. With only two actors and one set, this company managed to create a tremendous sense of fear. The pace was slow, and it was mostly two people talking, but with short re-enactment sessions built in to the narrative, they evoked the horrific situation the young man found himself in very well – I’m still creeped out days later.

In an attempt to rescue his wife, William Trevelyan has been kidnapped by an evil bunch, one of whom is his wife’s uncle. He’s been confined in a dark room, circular in shape, and with a nasty hole in the middle of the room. He’s been put through various forms of sadistic torture, including the swinging pendulum blade, but after the opening scene which showed us this gloomy cell, he’s rescued when a group from the local village come out to the house he’s been kept in and arrest the various wrongdoers. As he’s still weak, his rescuer, Josiah Bellamy, gets him to recount his ordeal before taking him upstairs to freedom. As the story unfolds, we’re shown some of the events – given the gloom, it wasn’t always easy to make things out – and then the play reaches the final, disturbing twist as William gets to meet his wife’s uncle, the man who’s behind his suffering.

The set was simple. A raised circular platform in the middle of the stage, with the requisite hole in the middle, and a series of chains hanging down at intervals round the outside. That’s it. The lighting was good, though as I’ve mentioned it was often very dark, making it hard to see what was going on. Once the story started, though, we were talked through the action, which worked better for me.

This same group did The Signalman, which we saw back in 2009; this is another good adaptation of an old-fashioned horror story, and I’ll definitely look out for their work again.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard III – July 2011

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th July 2011

This was a fantastic production, with a great central performance by Richard Clothier which was well supported by a strong and balanced ensemble.

The setting was a mix of hospital and abattoir. Open metal girders on either side, curtains of plastic strips which were held back by chains, and a box frame which had assorted cutting and drilling implements dangling from it represented the abattoir, while hospital screens in drab grey, white coats on the non-specific characters, and trolley tables represented the hospital. The characters in white coats were basically those not directly involved in each scene, and they also wore masks with holes for the eyes and mouth, which made them look very sinister. When characters arrived in the middle of a scene, for example Hastings’ release from the Tower, they had the white coats pull two sets of screens across the stage from opposite sides, and when they finished crossing over, the new arrival would be discovered in the middle of the stage. This worked very effectively.

It took me longer than Steve, but we both realised that the murders in the play were being done in the manner of various horror movies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being the most obvious. This certainly got across the nastiness of the violence, and I suspect it freed up Richard Clothier to present the humour of Richard’s part more strongly for the rest of the time, which he did brilliantly. I couldn’t place all the other references as I’m not into horror movies, but the association was clear, even to me.

The performance began with the actors done up in the white coats and masks gradually taking up positions on the stage, silently. They were not so much menacing at this time as strangely disturbing, as they stood there gazing out at us. I don’t remember now exactly how they got into the first line of the play – I think there was some kind of mime first? –  but once started, they went along at a fair clip.

The wooing scene went very well, despite the dead body in the middle of the stage, and I felt this time, as I have before, that it’s Richard’s flattering comments about her beauty that do the trick with Anne. Jon Trenchard played Lady Anne, and made her much more feminine than Propeller usually does; in fact all the women were noticeably less butch than usual – is this a change of policy?

The two young princes were represented by puppets, which worked really well. They had shop dummy faces, which reminded me of the Autons in Doctor Who, another creepy reference. They were slightly nervous children though, hanging round their mother’s skirts a lot, except when they arrived at the Tower and the younger lad was being cheeky to his uncle Richard.

The murderers were good fun. In suits, and acting well ‘ard, they almost came a cropper with their bursts of conscience, but managed to kill poor Clarence just in time. Richard turned up just afterwards, and instead of giving them their reward, killed them both. Nasty.

After Edward’s death, when the court has agreed to bring the Prince back to London for his coronation, Buckingham’s comment to Richard about being in the party that accompanies the Prince came across as the first time that Buckingham has sided with Richard against the other factions. I also felt that Richard was acting the innocent with Buckingham at this stage, allowing himself to be led in the direction he intended to go anyway. This made their disagreement after Richard’s coronation easier to understand.

At the meeting to arrange the Prince’s coronation, Richard’s accusations against Lord Hastings are clearly preposterous, but it’s equally clear than no one dares to speak up against the most powerful man in the country. Tyrrel, the murderer of the two princes, is another creepy character. He wears a grinning mask and a tool belt with some nasty-looking pieces of equipment dangling from it. I didn’t get the film reference, but I assume it must be one. After he killed the two young boys I noticed he also had a small teddy bear attached to the belt – I think it was the same as the teddy bear which Richard gave him as the token to gain access to the princes.

The alternating scenes before the final battle were also well done, with both Richard and Henry sleeping in the middle of the stage, side by side, while the ghosts lined up behind them and then came round in front to deliver their curses/blessings. The only trouble I had with this was that the dialogue overlapped, so it was hard to hear either part clearly, but as I’m familiar with this scene it didn’t bother me too much.

I also found that the production flagged a bit once Richard was downcast. His personality had driven the action and kept us entertained, and once his light dimmed, the whole energy of the piece dropped as well. This made the final scenes less interesting, and although the ensemble worked very well together, this was a production based on the central performance, and it suffered as a result. Mind you, the rest of it had been good enough to beat most other productions, so it’s not a major complaint.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me