I’ve said more than once in these ongoing reviews that online theatre means there are all sorts of opportunities to engage with material from regional groups around the country who might otherwise never get onto one’s radar. And having the Scenesaver platform to go to, and which takes all the hard work out of locating these pieces in the first place, means that the online audience is doubly fortunate. So it was that I accessed an audio production from Unscene Suffolk. This is a community group for the visually impaired who have produced a number of live and virtual shows with the support of local theatre the New Wolsey in Ipswich and which is now able to share their content with the wider world.
The Mystery Of Syleham Manor shares its DNA with Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw in that the central figure, Ruth Crittleworth, is a Victorian governess who goes to a remote country house in order to look after a pair of children. Here she encounters the enigmatic owner, a number of locked doors, strange noises in the night and a pervading air of mystery. The servants aren’t letting on, neither are the six guests who “arrive” for dinner but never seem to get fed. Then, there’s the strange man in the attic. The one element Ruth never encounters is the children themselves who, in defiance of Victorian convention, are often heard but never seen. She wonders when she can ever get going on the task she has been employed to carry out. There’s clearly an agenda of some sort; mind you, the governess has another of her own which is revealed through letters to her sister.
Pat Whymark’s script treads a fairly well known path then, but enlivens this with much dry humour which undercuts the potential horror and gives it a quite different feel from the James’ story. In tone it becomes rather reminiscent of the hit BBC comedy Ghosts especially in the scenes with the dinner guests who bicker among themselves and drop increasingly large clues as to why they are there. There are plenty of intriguing twists and turns before the mystery is finally unravelled which I’m not going to spoil by commenting on here though I have to say I didn’t guess the outcome. The piece is further given a different twist by employing some rhymed narration spoken chorally (only slightly clunky here and there) and by the inclusion of a theme song presumably performed by the company’s Unscene Singers group.
There’s plenty to get the imagination going in this audio piece which neatly puts the audience in the same position as many of the performers. It has been well recorded and professionally produced making use of facilities at Suffolk University and demonstrates technical skill by sound designer Amy Mallet and director Caroline Roberts. There’s a real ensemble feel to the large cast which is led by Carolyn Allum as the governess, and I particularly enjoyed the contributions of Rebecca Hurst as coach driver/gardener/general dogsbody Gabriel.
I did a quick bit of Googling after listening and it turns out there’s a real Syleham Manor in Suffolk (midway between Bungay and Diss) though on whether any of the events in the play were supposed to have taken place there, the internet remains silent. I was out that way just a few weeks ago so it would have been fun to check out the location and maybe listen to the play in situ. Never mind, it did just as well as I pottered around my own garden putting in the last of the bulbs before the weather fully turns. I’d recommend this audio play for a late winter afternoon listen in front of, where possible, a real fire. But just make sure you know where the kids are.