Friday, 4 June 2010

Tales of Terror – A Review

Tales of Terror, presented by The Happiness Patrol, featuring ghost stories by Louisa Baldwin, M R James, Lafcadio Hearn and Edgar Allen Poe.

ADC Theatre, Cambridge, 25 May 2010.

Calling a production Tales of Terror is a hostage to fortune because you expect at the very least to have a chill down the spine at some point in the proceedings, even if the company does have ‘Happiness’ in its name. Unfortunately this was an event distinctly short on terror, or tension of any kind. You may also assume, given the venue, that it is going to involve some element of dramatisation (much as we had a perfectly serviceable adaptation of The Woman in White at the ADC a few weeks ago). Tales of Terror instead involved a cast of one giving us a recitation that would have worked well on Radio 4 but wasn’t best suited to the stage, even though the mise-en-scène nodded to the spooky by being completely black, with black-clad narrator Philip Holyman lit from below, and ‘eerie music’ between the stories.

Holyman knew the words, which as far as I can tell were word-perfect, and he varied his tone to match the speaker when there was dialogue (though they all appeared to be from the West Midlands). The tales were sufficiently different to prevent him from becoming monotonous. But the choice was surprising. There are plenty of out-of-copyright stories that he could have used, and one wonders why he selected these ones.

The first was ‘How He Left the Hotel’ by Louisa Baldwin, who was Prime Minister Stanley ‘Farmer’ Baldwin’s mother. It got us off to a good start, but unfortunately was entirely predictable, and Holyman was just not able to make it sound uncanny. ‘There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard’, by M. R. James, was of course creepy, as you would expect. Unfortunately it has a frame which is perfectly understandable on the page, and would be if told around a roaring fire to a few admiring acolytes in the Jamesian manner, but in the larger space of the ADC sounded confusing.

‘In a Cup of Tea’, by Lafcadio Hearn, came across well, aided by the exoticism of its setting, but is just as incoherent a narrative when spoken as it is when read. The final one, given in isolation after the interval, was the strongest: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’, a splendid character study of Poe’s ‘imp of the perverse’, though a bit of an ordeal for animal lovers.

Alas for the element of surprise, none of these was a neglected story plucked from some dusty and long-forgotten repository. ‘The Black Cat’ would be known to many in the audience from page and screen, not least Roger Corman's 1962 effort in which he combined it with 'A Cask of Amontillado' as one of a trio of Poe stories in the film Tales of Terror. ‘In a Cup of Tea’ may be familiar to some because of its appearance in the 1964 portmanteau film based on Hearn’s writings, Kwaidan. Including M R James was nice because of his Cambridge connection, but again his work is well known, and Holyman’s effort suffered in comparison to the superb one-man adaptations done by Robert Lloyd Parry in which he creates a James persona. Only the Baldwin was relatively obscure, but even that has been anthologised and is not hard to find.

The venue was a problem because the stage was too big for just one person, and the effort of projection meant that subtlety was lost. Dressing it in black with minimal lighting was not enough to generate the required atmosphere. The intimacy of the Corpus Christie Playroom, where I have seen Lloyd Parry perform, might have given the material a better chance. Finally, the running time was a lot shorter than the 1 hour 20 minutes the programme promised. Both halves together clocked in at under an hour, which isn’t much of an evening’s entertainment at the theatre. There were mutterings in the audience which suggested that dismay was not mine alone.