views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Very Still and Hard to See
Etcetera Theatre
3rd August 2013


Julie Binysh and Steve Hughes as Obake and Buck Mason

Photography provided by BeLT PRoductions

Name me three famous, classic plays in the horror genre. Go on, I challenge you. The Woman in Black? Very good. Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson's Ghost Stories. Yes, excellent. But you're stumped now, aren't you? The simple fact is if you're actually trying to terrify as opposed to titillate, theatre just doesn't really have the ability. Sure, there's Grand Guignol, but nothing that falls under that banner is really considered high art - or even scary - it's just the theatrical equivalent of a 1980s video nasty. But in Very Still and Hard to See, BeLT Productions have taken US playwright Steve Jockey's tongue-in-cheek rejigging of Japanese folklore and created something rather unsettling, rather funny and all-round rather special.

A series of vignettes detailing the fate of a bunch of characters tied around a framing device of a hotel, there's plenty of room for tonal shifts and a playful, knowing creepiness. We begin with architect Buck Mason (Stevie Hughes) meeting Obake (Julie Binysh), a preternatural shape-shifter who gives him little choice in granting his rather unpleasant heart's desire in return for shifting the construction of his hotel over by a few feet. Here we get a glimpse of the way director and designer Dan Armour wants to play it - no set as such, just a circle in which the action takes place (in what I hope is an ironic nod to the Western ideals of circles offering protection from the supernatural). Outside the circle, the walls of the rooms are created by the company, all dressed in tatty robes, heads covered, mostly silent. In the opening, Underground, they are the dank walls of Obake's cavern, but all at once also the fellow spirits and even a projection of herself - Obake's exterior of an attractive, smartly dressed middle-aged woman being just one form of this faceless mass.

Samantha Pressdee and Kyle Cluett as Kimberly and Sam

Photography provided by BeLT PRoductions

We then go on to see the fates of those who visit the hotel. The first group, three teens (Josh Lawson, Kyle Cluett and Samantha Pressdee) are terrorised by the Kami (Paul Baker and Lorraine Spenceley), spirits of a couple who died in hanging. As is the horror movie trope, these sexualised teens need to die, with the Kami possessing Jasper (Josh Lawson). Effective voice work between Lawson and Spenceley evokes the Exorcist and Evil Dead without the need for after-effects and the result is incredibly unsettling. But with Lawson and Cluett sometimes going ten to the dozen in American accents, Steve Yockey's dialogue is sometimes garbled, jokes lost and tension dispersed.

Bleach & Other Household Cleaners sees Betty (Debbie Griffiths) cleaning her kitchen, the shape-shifting spirits playing the increasingly large hole in her floor. Their chemistry in playing this frustrated couple is great, and the pay-off puts you in mind of one of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected. But this, along with A Personal Account of the Renovation is one of the weaker scenes - but only because something's got to give in an otherwise peerless play. The latter saw David Griffiths get a vertical tour of the hotel from concierge Franklin (Lawson again). While there was a great callback to a gag set out in the second scene, it didn't quite horrify as much as it could. An experiment in the intellectual rather than the visceral.

The deeply comic Hearts & Flowers had a cursed Ginger (Fiona Cullen) terrorising the Shikigami (Cluett and Tamsin Fellowes) who were bound to her, trying to stop her making the same mistake she had made more than 400 times before. The inversion of the horrific and mundane paid dividends, with Cluett and Fellowes' frustration and impotency - at times brilliantly delivered - being the punchline. It was refreshing in a number of ways, not least for turning the show's concept somewhat on its head.

But the show stealer, hands down, was Pauline Armour's monologue An Unfortunate Storm-Related Mishap. Whether it's just because people love to see unassuming little old ladies discuss sex and murder, I don't know. But as Edith, Armour utterly nailed every aspect, a meek and fairly cheerful exterior masking a ruder, harsher but still unmalicious heart. She had us all in the palm of her hand as she told the tale of a storm during her stay at the hotel, hitting the comedic and emotional beats perfectly. When Binysh, off to the side sewing throughout, stepped in to take over for the bloody climax, it added a weight and potency that without may have been just too comedic. But a finer old lady you'll never see.

Finally, Baker and Alison Green's Above Ground shows the effects and eventual fate of Buck, with Green in particular giving a powerful and worrying portrayal of the architect's granddaughter, Simone. Despite the laughs that come, you'll leave feeling queasy and drained, as if you've been touched by the hotel vicariously. Which, of course, means BeLT have succeeded.

I've had frequent discussions - one at the morning of writing actually - about those that don't understand that the plot of a piece is distinct from what that piece is truly about. Here, I can't really work that. It's a comic horror and Yockey doesn't give us anything by way of depth. Sure, he nods to ideas of power, lust, an evil intrinsic to human nature rather than without, and also change (or lack thereof). But its primary function is to creep us out, to make us laugh, and with Dan Armour at the helm, it does just that.

I have tried not to give away the game too much, as half of the fun is taking things at face value before they finally go on to reveal themselves, whether comedically or tragically. Like the shape-changing Obake, the play's scenes contort, snake and mislead. This is imaginatively mirrored in Armour's mutable, living backdrops which, among other things, add an immediate sense of oppression.

Going back to my original point, do you know what The Woman in Black and Ghost Stories have in common with this? They are all absolute treats. There may not be many examples of stage spookiness, but when they do come along, they state the case of quality rather than quantity and Very Still and Hard to See is no different.

Very Still and Hard to See opened on 2nd August and runs until 4th August 2013, as part of the Camden Fringe. It then runs from 12th to 24th August at the Greenside Theatre, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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