Horrors are a dying breed of theatre nowadays. Especially in the fringe theatre scene. The last piece of horror theatre that I saw was The Haunting of Hill House way back in 2016. That production had a hell of a lot of whizz-bangery and special effects to go with it in its attempts to spook the audience, and even that just about managed it. So I can understand why we see so few are knocking about at the minute. So I was almost as shocked as I was in the Playhouse back in 2016 when I heard that new fringe writer Ste Mc was making horror his genre of choice for his debut full-length play. Brave move in such a deserted landscape. So does it pay off? Or is Death and all his Friends more Casper the Friendly Ghost than The Exorcist?
The stark scene the audience must face as they enter the theatre is daunting for a multitude of reasons. One being that there is a pale figure hanging from the neck at the gallows just a few feet from the audience walking past. The other, being that this woman is a real actress and this rope really is hanging from the lighting frame. Now, I don’t know about you, but having worked as a Venue Manager and a Stage Technician in theatres before, the Health and Safety alarms in me were freaking out massively. That actress sneezes and loses her balance, or the decking she is stood on collapses and you really do have a ghost in the theatre.
But anyway, I digress. The opening is tense, filled with suspense and has an ominous feel to it… at first. The opening scene in which the audience is welcomed by resident ghost (Hayley Claire Warner) is typical of this genre – a spooky narrator is a throwback to some of the Hammer House of Horror masterpieces of yesteryear – and she does a fitting job initially. There are some tense moments as our spectre sets the scene; but it doesn’t last. Warner builds the tension in the room and then the audience lose interest. Why I hear you ask? Nothing is happening. Simply put, the actress works hard to build the interest, but the script itself is too much tell, and not enough show (a theme you will know is somewhat reoccurring in Liverpool fringe at the moment if you had read my review of Last Appointment at The Casa, also a feature of Liverpool Fringe this year).
As a very clever person (not me) once said:
‘You should never give the audience 4. You should give them 2 + 2 and then let them add it together themselves.’
To put this issue simply, Ste Mc does a very good job at building the tension and creating an atmosphere with his words, and director: Sarah Sharp, does well to enhance that atmosphere. However the script is simply too wordy and gets carried away with telling the audience that something is spooky, rather than scaring the living daylights out of them through more creative means. For a debut piece of writing though, it does have some good features and the ideas are refreshing considering some of the issues the piece tries to tackle.
In terms of directing, the piece is navigated pretty well by Sarah Sharp and she keeps her actors in check for the most part. Sharp made some clever decisions with the staging of the piece and it was a real delight to see someone really put the space to good use for this piece. The Hope Street Theatre can be a dauntingly large space for a fringe theatre and the uninitiated. So it was a breath of fresh air to see someone really utilise some of the space that it had to offer. I would though, argue that the table was unnecessary considering it was used for all of about 30 seconds and took up a third of the front of the stage. Other than that though, Sharp can be pleased with what she managed to get out of a script that was overwritten and a cast that had been together for no more than a few days.
On that note, it was a real punch to the stomach to learn that a few days prior to the opening of the show that the lead male actor had dropped out and had been replaced by Andy McQuaker, Grant Ryan Lenton and Warren Kettle. I don’t know the ins and outs of why the actor dropped out, so I won’t comment on it. I will though, give a nod to the three actors who stepped in last minute. It takes guts to pick up the pieces of a show that is going on stage in a matter of days and for that I have huge respect. In terms of what they produce, I would say that they do pretty well, especially given the circumstances.
Andy McQuaker as Jonathan the school teacher plays a truly haunted soul. However, I would recommend he doesn’t peak too early with his hysteria as his level of hysteria hadn’t yet matched the crescendo of the scene and so felt premature.
Warren Kettle plays Simon with a great chemistry between himself and Laura Connolly. His subtle movements and gestures are refreshing. Albeit I feel his character was somewhat shoe-horned in and I don’t feel the part was entirely relevant other than to provide comic relief. I would have liked to have seen how much he could have ramped up the tension in his scene with the use of his subtleties; although this might be asking too much with his limited rehearsal time.
Grant Ryan Lenton does a sterling job as Policeman. It might not be a part that carries a lot of weight in the grand scheme of things, but it is bloody hard to play a ‘normal’ character with no defining features to grip on to from the text. However Grant manages to do this very well. I always have respect for someone who can play a character like this when it is done well. As an actor, you want to be the one in the limelight, the one people talk about after the show and the one who gets the adoration. So to play a character that is – in all honesty – quite forgettable, with such selflessness is bloody admirable if you ask me.
Now on to the original cast members! Laura Connolly has her work cut out in being the only multi-role of the company and she doesn’t half put her all into it! She comes out of each scene with a different character and a different background; each unrecognisable from the last. My only qualm is that it felt like she was trying to distinguish from the characters so much so that it became a case of more of the same telling the audience and less of letting them figuring it out themselves which is a shame. Case in point being the wildly differing accents for each character. It is understandable to want to differentiate each character with voice, tone, emotion etc. But, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using your natural accent at times unless it is specifically stated otherwise. One’s natural accent is where we find our greatest range of emotions, so it makes sense to embrace it when the opportunity presents itself. A solid showing though otherwise.
Hayley Claire Warner has arguably the hardest job of them all in this piece. The ghost that is navigating the audience through the supposed history of the theatre. Whilst this is essentially a narrator piece, she arguably has the hardest task of entertaining the audience mostly through story-telling and monologues, as she can’t really interact with the other characters and merely acts as vessel in which to carry the story. While the gusto and enthusiasm with which she delivers her lines is respectable, I won’t lie. Nothing in which she said or did actually scared me (other than precariously trying to get her head into that sketchy noose) and so I was left wanting in terms of what she had to offer as a dramatic tool as opposed to just being a storyteller. Her commitment to the piece didn’t waver though and so that has to be respected.
Overall, this piece has potential. But it needs to go back to the writing room from which it first came. Cut the script right down to the bare essentials of story-telling, stop telling the audience to be scared and show them why they should be scared, make the piece a one act play, throw in more jumps and loud bangs like the moment that made several members of the audience literally shout out loud – the falling chair – and think about ways that can really unsettle the audience without alienating them and switching them off. Then and only this will this show will be a much more thrilling creation. Still, for a debut piece of writing, Ste Mc can be happy with what he has produced and can go back to the keyboard with a piece to develop that definitely has potential to improve.
Oh, and re-assess the scream at the end of the piece after the audience starts clapping, it was more comedic than chilling and it missed the beat of scaring the audience.
Theatrevolt rating: 2.5/5