31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 28: Silence! The Musical (Arts After Hours)

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source: artsafterhours.com

source: artsafterhours.com

How can a musical featuring a song called ‘If I Could Smell Your Cunt’ be so painfully tedious? And from especially an Arts After Hours production, a reliable staple of my last two Hallowe’ens, and yes I am drunk but I am so pissed off that this was such a terrible, awful, no-good disappointment of a Friday night out. And you know what’s worse? The fact that the players had such a pervasive energy that it felt rude not to acknowledge its potential to make a decent show better, if not for a cringe-driven exercise in overly-telegraphed humour that left the performers’ would-be-infectious efforts ring hollow.

Jesus. I’m sorry. But Silence! The Musical was worlds apart from Arts After Hours’ 2013 and 2015 offerings. I felt like I do when I am in a room in which everyone loves Lady Gaga and I do not. 2013’s Evil Dead: The Musical was a masterful homage, spoof and love letter to all things Raimi. 2015’s The Texas Chainsaw Musical was a hand-over-mouth ‘should i laugh at this?’ send-up of Ed Gein’s twisted, romantic leanings, plus sprinklings of its cinematic influencee, Leatherface.

But 2016’s production left I and others I spoke to feeling embarrassingly cheated. It resembled nothing of what I’d expected based on previous productions. The humour was obvious, low-brow fare, and when it wasn’t ‘avoiding’ lazy double entendres by asking fellow characters to refrain from making them, it relied solely on spoofing the film (imagine Scary Movie vs. Spaceballs) without any non-spoof humour to prop it up. The production never had a chance in standing up on its own.

No doubt that the actress who plays Clarice is well-equipped to dazzle on both stage and screen. But she is wasted in a show that demands that she extract her role’s only source of entertainment value from a copycat accent that takes a a Southern drawl and shits on it with an inconsistent speech impediment that gets old after five minutes. Hannibal himself is delightfully deadpan, and a  memorable Buffalo Bill gives it his admirable all, but it’s the background players that had me leak out the odd guffaw. The way they effortlessly turn from intro-singing moths to scurrying FBI agents, or background wanking and Tourette-cursing while Clarice did her best Christian Slater impression had me spitting out my beer. I’d happily watch a retelling from their point of view.

I feel like a dick for being this honest but I’m not that important of a human being, so fuck it for saying I couldn’t wait for it to end. Despite gleefully enjoying my last two Arts After Hours shows, I’d never had unreasonably high hopes for this one. But now I’m cautious as to what my next year will bring.

2/5

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 18: Dracula (Teabreak Theatre, Sutton House)

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Friend: “Anyone fancy seeing a production of Dracula in a Tudor mansion?”

Me: “HELLS YEAH”

Sutton House. Source: NationalTrust.org

Sutton House. Source: NationalTrust.org

This past Tuesday, Teabreak Theatre took over the suitably spooky Sutton House in Hackney, East London, for their immersive production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Upon arrival, we were asked to fill out a form with our names and addresses, greatest fear, blood type, and a routine disclaimer absolving the House of any harm that might befall us. Standard stuff. You get a moment to get drinks from their polite mixologist genius at the courtyard bar (try ‘Death in the Afternoon’, a ghostly gin and violet-liqueur concoction).

A tour guide brings you upstairs to give you a little bit of history of the house. You can bring your drinks up with you, but a curious sign on the stairs forbids red wine; whether that’s a playful nod to its similarity to blood or a genuine ‘please don’t fuck up our historic furnishings with the stainiest stainer of all booze’, I didn’t think to ask. But then began the Company’s unique interpretation of Stoker’s classic. If you think you know immersive horror, think again. My advice? Don’t try to shut up those annoyingly chatty members of your tour group…

After some shaky opening performances and inevitable, first-night technical issues, the story picks up, the narrative switches gears, and the actors finally start to sink their teeth (sorry) into their roles. And there’s great chemistry among them – moving and bittersweet with Jonathan (Chris Dobson) and Mina (Molly Small), and playfully comedic from the fly-nomming, scene-stealing Renfield (Emily Essery).

The troupe makes creepily effective use of their limited space and props by some inventive bursts of sound misdirection. In an old house whose every floorboard has its own creak, you’ve basically got a Hallowe’en sound-effects version of the giant keyboard from Big.

It’s important to know that, while most of the scenes take place in a large reception room, there is some walking around across rooms and up and down stairs, so comfortable shoes are recommended. It can get chilly, so keep your coat on. Oh, and wear a thick scarf around your neck. No reason.

3.8/5

 

 

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 21: The Woman in Black (Fortune Theatre)

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I felt it proper that my first West End theatre experience, since moving to London, ought to be a spooky experience. Playing exclusively at the Fortune Theatre since 1989, The Woman in Black seemed like an apt choice.

Anyone who’s seen the 2012 film or read Susan Hill‘s 1983 book won’t have been spoiled – it’s nothing like either. The play is surprisingly minimal – stripped bare, with a only a wicker chest, two wooden chairs and two actors on stage. Everything else is suggested through crisp audio cues, or conjured up through the actors’ response to them (such as Spider the dog). Heed that before you go, in case you’d rather have more elaborate sets and multiple actors.

The story is set up as a play within a play. Our story’s protagonist, Arthur Kipps (Malcolm James) has written a play to recount his chilling experiences with the titular Woman in Black. In some of the (IRL) play’s most humorous moments, Arthur has embarrassing trouble playing the part of himself, and ends up deferring to an actor (Matt Connor) to take over. It’s a clever bit of levity before the spooks start coming in.

And they literally do. After we’d been advised not to take any aisle seats, I spent the odd minute doing some sporadic fake-outs towards the stalls doors, trying to unsettle my theatremate. I’m happy to say it worked at least once. Because the theatre is so small, your experience is already more immersive than if you’d taken your West End experience elsewhere; so nobody expected to have ghouls appearing in the aisle. It was rather sweet.

But, for me, not as scary as everyone had been losing their shit over. It’s expertly-acted and dizzyingly-paced, and sound production is second to none. It’s just not as frightening as the consensus had made out, and the Woman in Black herself is not so much terrifying as she is tragic.

Also: apologies. If you were there Friday, 21 October 2016, I am the asshole that coughed in the theatre. I tried to hold it in but, just like stifling a laugh that shouldn’t be laughed, it just made it worse. The throat-fracturing red wine is to blame.