I guess it’s something to do with sitting in a quiet dark room in your own house which is sufficient to give you the creeps but it’s something that many of us go back to time after time. One of the persistent aspects of theatre online has been the telling of horror and ghost stories and this reached a natural crescendo a month ago with Halloween; since then, the wellspring doesn’t seem to have dried up. Both Threedumb Theatre (The Tell Tale Heart and Within) and Danse Macabre (Host) have already tried their hand at the genre and as I noted they had new product to investigate I resolved to once again venture to the dark side.
Threedumb Theatre’s latest piece is an adaptation of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novella The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde in this case adapted by Stewart Crowther. As they did with their two earlier lockdown plays, they are filming this live in one take and broadcasting the result on Facebook; the recorded version will subsequently be aired on You Tube. There has been a change of venue though; rather than setting up and recording at home they are actually back in a theatre – the Pump House in Watford to be precise. The preshow announcements were broadcast over a picture of the still empty auditorium and reminded us to turn off our mobile phones… unless that’s our chosen choice of viewing medium. Then in the dark you can hear the only semi- remembered sound of the curtain rising – ah, that takes me back. The play is performed in two distinct areas representing a study and a lab and the single hand held camera follows Jonathan Davenport as Jekyll back and forth as he experiments and brings to the forefront his hideous inner nature embodied by the ghastly Hyde. A number of other ghostly voiceovers play his friend Utterson, his servants and various citizens of night time London but rather than the story emerging from their lips (as it does in the original) everything is presented from Jekyll/Hyde’s perspective so it is essentially a one man show.
Davenport switches effortlessly between the two different natures of the same man and, with a wash of green light, is particularly effective as the snarling amoral Hyde who gradually starts to take over his host. Drinking, gambling, whoring and eventually murder ensue – a piece of appropriate Victorian shadow play ensures the latter is memorably done. Indeed, Eddie Stephens’ lighting becomes a valuable asset in creating atmosphere and it is easy to see that the lessons learned by Threedumb in this area from their earlier experimentation have paid dividends. The hand held camera is also beneficial as it gives the piece, directed with a clear sense of purpose by Stephen Smith, a sense of urgency and drive helped by the fact that the version I saw was being performed live. In fact, it turned out that the picture went down at one point, although if it did, I have to say it didn’t make any difference to this viewer. I didn’t quite feel the immediacy that their two previous lower key productions engendered but at just thirty minutes this is a quick fix of horror for those so inclined. Threedumb Theatre have specialised in creating a Victorian ‘penny dreadful’ niche for themselves and its good to see they have been able to take on a slightly more ambitious project this time round.
By contrast Danse Macabre’s piece The Shadow has a modern setting although it actually explores some of the same concerns as Jekyll and Hyde. Both stories deal with a shifting personality though this time round it’s the outward representation of the central character rather than his inner depravity which causes the trouble. On the face of it, Joseph Kelly plays a regular young man talking directly to the audience about minor incidents in his life and his relationship with his partner. But his own shadow seems out of control and after the sun goes down even greater horror ensues. Sam Essame’s script does most of the heavy lifting but I didn’t think it was as successful as Host which took more time to build a sense of creeping horror. The piece is very short and so Kelly barely has time to establish character before he is aiming to present the changes that occur; it’s not very often that I say a play should have been longer but in this case more elbow room would have paid dividends. The production values are also a little disappointing with scant regard paid to creating atmosphere. Having the character saying, “I realise, I’m the only thing in the room that doesn’t have a shadow” while there is clearly a distinct shadow on the wall behind (see pic) is a basic error which should not have occurred. I think there’s the germ of a good idea here but feel the piece needs a significant amount of work to bring it fully to fruition. To see a better example of Danse Macabre’s work then head for the aforementioned Host.
Meanwhile the real life horror show continues as the vast majority of us find ourselves all but locked down in Tiers 2 and 3. While some theatres are going to be able to open with Covid secure requirements and social distancing, it is a moot point whether audiences will be tempted out just yet. Others have already declared that with restrictions the whole thing becomes economically unviable. It looks like we’re going to be at least semi-reliant on online content for some while yet.
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