The Devil Without, London Horror Festival

rsz_1devilHiding in a room above a pub in Camden, John is on the run from an archdemon that he initially believed was the angel Madimi, with whom he did a dodgy deal for his soul. This archdemon is so powerful that being in his presence is enough to kill a mortal. But don’t worry, everyone is safe as long as we follow John’s instructions and don’t go through the door. Arcane symbols and a circle of salt help protect us from harm, as does his wisdom and hundreds of years of life experience. We are there for a workshop of sorts, to learn how to augment our realities through the power of the liminal space that exists between realities and just happen to be caught up in the demon chase, so the audience must sign a waiver before entering the theatre. Part séance, part hypnotism show, part magic and part theatre, The Devil Without seamlessly merges genres and the occult in a frighteningly unpredictable show loaded with audience interaction.

It’s difficult to say much about this show’s details without giving away the elements that generate the near-constant surprise and suspense, but there is a storyline and a structure that definitely makes this a piece of highly effective theatre. Ian Harvey-Stone plays the character of the 500-year-old immortal, performing feats of mind control and magic that rely on audience participation, including four people taken on an out-of-body journey to see if it’s safe to emerge from the room. There are also guided meditations that are meant to reduce phobias and demonstrate the power of our own minds, which are uncomfortably successful. It’s certainly impressive as Harvey-Stone manages to fully convinces and disarms the audience. Logically I believe what he does must be trickery involving audience plants, but he’s so convincing that the seeds of doubts are there, especially with Harvey-Stone’s assurance that they aren’t and the show changes nightly – could it be real? After all, “magic features the power of words…speak something and it exists,” says John. This uncertainty contributes to the scare factor of the show; we are unsettled when logic cannot explain an occurrence.

Smoothly directed by John-David Henshaw, the use of light and sound emphasizes the paranormal with resonant tones and pulsing lights. Henshaw’s direction combined with Harvey-Stone’s performance makes them an impressive pair of suspense masters. As a former scare attraction performer and an aficionado of horror, it takes a lot to rattle me but The Devil Without is hugely unsettling. The fluid genre mash-up and Harvey-Stone’s committed performance combine to create a show that extends the genre of horror theatre in a wonderfully frightening direction.

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The Sandman, London Horror Festival

rsz_sandmanThe sandman doesn’t throw sand in your eyes to help you sleep, oh no. That’s just what parents want children to believe so they aren’t scared of the real sandman. The real sandman is horrible. If you’re still awake, he steals your eyes and puts them into his little bag and takes them up to his little, bald bird-children who live on the moon. Then they eat them.

T. A. Hoffmann, celebrated German gothic horror author, wrote short story “The Sandman” in 1816. Featuring automatons, folklore, love, childhood trauma and obsession, it tells the tragic downfall of Nathaniel, who couldn’t let go of his boyhood fear of the sandman, personified in his father’s malformed colleague, Coppelius. Adie Mueller and Mike Carter adapt and modernise this short story into a one-woman show of the same name that eschews linear narrative in favour of a disturbing, extremely fragmented chaos. Mueller skillfully performs the eight characters that appear in the story, but the show requires a lot of thinking and patience to decipher the truth behind the numerous perspectives.

In the programme, Mueller and Carter state, “The woman knows that this story is too much for her and she needs you, the audience. The story bursts out of her and comes at you in fragments, randomly and out of chronological sequence. You will have to play your part in piecing them together, finding the overarching narrative, and search beyond reason to make meaning from them.” This is a nice idea to draw the audience into a one-person show and make them feel needed, but for the tired and those that want to sit back and be entertained/scared, it’s hard work. It also serves as a distraction from the lack of clarity of the audience’s function and relationship to the performer, a vital element of one-person performance. Requiring us to sift through the pieces of story strewn before us has no benefit to the performance or the piece; it would be delivered identically whether the audience understands or not. Director Carter chooses to keep the house lights on so Meuller can make eye contact, but there is no direct dialogue. What does she want from us? Why are we hearing this story? It is never revealed.

Mueller’s performance draws attention away from these shortcomings, and it’s an excellent one. Her use of physical storytelling and character differentiation comes easily, and shows a high level of skill and training. Clad in white, she cuts a powerful image in the Etcetera’s small black box, adding to the chaos with her violent use of creepy props.

The story modernizes well, with a focus on sexual dysfunction, technology and its grim intersection. The characters evoke empathy, particularly Nathaniel, who we see as a scared child and an adult obsessed with his lecturer’s “daughter” Olympia. Though his behaviour is appalling, he is a victim of his past rather than a calculating psychopath. His attempts to maintain a normal relationship with human being Clara are thwarted by reoccurring psychotic episodes…or are they real? The prospect of an alternative, tormenting reality that haunts Nathaniel is deliciously spooky. The Sandman is creepily unsettling and despite the effort needed to work out what is happening, the performances and characters make up for the jagged structure.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PayPal.