Payne Killer, London Horror Festival

rsz_1payneAny theatre festival programme is hit or miss if you aren’t familiar with individual shows or participating companies. So far, the productions I’ve seen at the London Horror Festival have ranged from ok to quite good, until Payne Killer. Lack of direction and a hackneyed story concept caused rushed, hammy performances and poor technical choices. There is also some awkward stage combat, no subtlety and a twist at the end ruined by the final moment. Phil Newman’s detailed set design helps provide some relief from the experience, as do a few moments in Rowan Dixon’s script that are probably quite funny if delivered well, but these two features aren’t enough to save the production from inflicting the horrors of bad theatre on its audience.

In a production that requires suspense, varied pace is a vital element, particularly at the beginning. The actors in this two-hander start off relentlessly, with no pauses to allow for phrasing or building up to the first major plot revelation. They tire and slow down just as things should be picking up, so they phone it in for the rest of the play. No director is credited so I assume that the two performers, also founders of producing company The Uplifters, self-directed – a mistake that could have easily been avoided and choosing otherwise would have had a hugely positive impact on the production. A director or a lighting designer could have also sorted out the cheesy lighting states during the characters’ reflective, confessional monologues that were also confusing and unnecessary: spotlights indicated soliloquies, but the other character could hear them and subsequently commented on the revealed information.

The set, a middle class, older woman’s living room, is unusually detailed for such a small theatre but fits the space well. Down to the newspaper holder and the trinket-filled bookcase, it creates the feel of a lived-in home that is well looked after, even if the furniture hasn’t been replaced since the 70s. It serves the production well, with only a slippery rug causing any interference to the actors.

Dixon’s script isn’t bad per se, but neither is it inventive or seemingly well researched. The characters are rather under-developed and cliched; something that research on serial killers may have helped. There are some nice moments, particularly when the two display some vulnerability, but due to the aforementioned performance issues these are glossed over.

A good production team, script rewrites and possible recasting might salvage Payne Killer, but The Uplifters may choose to move on and focus on the musicals they typically produce, which are familiar ground and probably better quality than their venture into horror theatre, a genre that should be scary for its content rather than its production values.

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Ideomotor, London Horror Festival

By guest reviewer Michaela Clement-Hayes

There’s nothing quite like sibling rivalry and the hatred you feel for your brother or sister is only matched by one thing. The hatred you often feel for your flat mates. It doesn’t matter how much you love them, there are times when you just want to kill them. True to form, there’s not a lot of love lost between flat mates Charlie, Leo and Penny. Leo (Paul Duncan McGarrity) has just moved to London from up north and is trying to fit in. The trouble is, he goes to work all day and Charlie (David Ahmad) and Penny (Brydie Lee-Kennedy) don’t. They also don’t clean, cook or remember his birthday. So when Leo comes home to find the other two holding a seance for Lenny Henry (Penny’s AWOL hamster), tempers fray and lies begin to unravel. But is the ouija board being manipulated by one of his flatmates, or is it actually trying to warn them?

With Ideomotor, writer and director Gavin Innes has taken an everyday familiar situation and given it a slight paranormal twist. It seems like your average house-share drama – missing food, issues with the cleaning rota and a couple of accidents involving alcohol, but is there more to it? The script perhaps tries too hard to be funny in places but the audience do enjoy most of the jokes and although some of the twists are easy to guess, we are still left trying to piece the puzzle together following an ending that is quite creepy, but brilliantly executed.

The actors themselves are believable and while nerves perhaps get the better of them a couple of times, movement is slick and the space is used well. At first glance the set (designed by Isabella Van Braeckel) looks simple, but the attention to detail is actually very precise, from the discreet name labels on the jars of herbs to the reduced sticker on the pizza box and even the new 5p bags from Sainsbury’s.

Despite its weaknesses, Ideomotor is a story as dark as its humour is light, lulling the audience into a false sense of security before throwing them off their guard and leaving them with many unanswered questions.

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.

Infection, London Horror Festival

Sam, Dominique and Will don’t always get on with each other. It doesn’t help that they’re under a lot of stress due to a zombie-alien invasion, and can’t work out if any other people survive in their town. Dom and Will are brother and sister who don’t have much in common, and Will has no patience with Dom’s bestie Sam, a vegan, weed-smoking student. Considering all of that, they do quite well for most of Infection, a new play by the Brighton-based Bath Street Productions. With scenes alternating between the past and the present and clear transitions making this is easy to follow, but performances vary according to emotional intensity, and some of the writing is similarly overwrought. There are some witty one-liners and moving moments that, with the absence of the zombie-aliens, prevents Infection from becoming too much like a zombie film, even with strong parallels to Shawn of the Dead.

The script by Faye Woodbridge has a clear dramatic arc and climax, with a format that facilitates suspense by starting in the present, than jumping back to the beginning of the invasion two weeks previously, moving the plot forward by jumping back and forth until we’re back in present. The story itself isn’t particularly inventive, especially as we never properly see the zombie aliens or learn about how the invasion started. Other survivors communicate through graffiti on the supermarket walls, but these are never seen either. Infection is a microcosm but lacks the scope present in zombie films, despite all of the references the characters bandy around. It suits a small-scale theatre space, but doesn’t quite capture the fear of the situation what with exclusively showing such a small group of characters. There’s no sense of scale. There are some minor anomalies – though the attacks are actually seen once, the three keep getting injured without clear explanation. How do zombie aliens sprain the girls’ ankles and dislocate their shoulders? Surely they’d go for something a bit more deadly? Despite the supermarket messages, the characters comment on the town’s emptiness. Even with these issues, it wouldn’t take much development to expand the play and make the invasion’s impact more widely felt, even without adding the invaders.

Writer Woodbridge also plays Dom, giving the most consistent and believable performance from the cast of three. Direction was occasionally obvious through mechanical blocking with no clear purpose; no individual director was credited in the programme, instead directorial credit lies with the production company. A designated outside eye not part of the cast would be able to provide more unity in movement. Martin Wright’s transition sound design is excellent, providing clarity and reinforcing the gravity of their situation.

The most interesting aspect of this script is the gender dynamics that emerge during a time of crisis. Will (Michael Williams) feels obligated to protect his young sister Dom, even though they’ve grown apart as adults and don’t really know each other anymore. He treats Sam (Katie Newman) more like a bloke than he does his sister, despite her diminutive size and more girlish tendencies. Will revels in being the big, strong man even though his foolhardiness and bravado cause further problems, and Dom’s insistence of proving that she can look after herself exacerbates the danger in their situation. The girls’ comic one-liners help draw attention to the ridiculousness of Will’s old-fashioned mindset, as well as add levity to the script.

Though this certainly is not a bad production, but in order to stand out in the zombie field something dramatically different needs to be done. It’s easy to go with a popular formula for success and this is a good representation of it, but not a particularly inventive one.

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.

Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow, London Horror Festival

Freak Show by Chris BrockI’m watching Ben Whitehead play a socially inept Victorian playing a half-walrus/half-man creature, indicated by the wearing of a hooded grey sleeping bag, blue swimming flippers on his hands, and paper tusks precariously attached to his face with a false moustache. I’m pondering the life choices I’ve made that led me to this moment as well as whether or not the character-based stand up/absurd solo performance/live art/Victorian freakshow satire/old-fashioned variety show that unfolds before me is one of the greatest pieces of theatre I’ve ever encountered, or the worst. It may possibly be both. I still haven’t decided, and may not ever do so, let alone by the time I finish this review. Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow violently mashes up genres in a bizarre yet often-hilarious piece that manages to be both straightforward and bafflingly random.

Whitehead’s narrator Fred Strangebone cuts an imposing figure in a dinner suit, black shirt, and velvet bowtie. His rigidity and demeanor remind me of Lurch in the original The Addams Family series from the 1960s, but more well spoken and deadpan. Fred tells us exactly what’s going to happen: he will perform some comedy, then tell us a tale of unspeakable horror, and then, time permitting, he’s going to kill himself. His tale of unspeakable horror is more of a speakable mystery (so he says), where Strangebone goes to the freakshow and meets the walrus man and other oddities affiliated with the travelling show. These characters are a fantastic platform for accomplished voice actor Whitehead to get stuck into, and an enjoyably grotesque one at that. After a failed attempt to impress the freakshow to the point that they invite him to join them, he fulfills his initial promise…or does he? The meta-theatre from the stand-up clouds the levels of reality within Fred’s world.

Each of Whitehead’s creations could be a piece in itself, but he connects them through an overarching storyline. This structure could do with some work, as the narration between characters is often thin, with a tenuous link from one character to the next. The dwarfish property developer with pink wellies chewing on a cigar made of chorizo, whilst hilarious, only loosely fits into the established story. A scriptwriter or script consultant could have a positive influence on the story. His comedy is achingly funny, using absurdity and grotesque imagery to generate laughter mixed with disgust. Like when the demon bin-babies vomit all over mute clown cleaner, Sid, after he breast-feeds them to a monstrous soundtrack. (That was another one of those existential moments for me I mentioned earlier.)

Despite the rough structure and the script with predetermined characters crowbarred in, Whitehead has a fantastic sense for the absurdly funny and Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow manages to pay homage to several earlier popular performance forms – including the freakshow (obviously), variety, cabaret and travelling circus. There’s some audience participation, but the piece is more presentational than interactive. The event is a baffling, bizarre and uniquely wonderful one that refuses to be classified into one particular performance genre and certainly a one-of-a-kind contribution to the London Horror Festival this year.

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.

Home Free!, London Horror Festival

CRvG0L4WwAA3jO7Siblings Joanna and Lawrence live in 1950s New York City, a place brimming with promise and excitement for its younger residents. They don’t take advantage of it, though. Lawrence never leaves their little apartment; instead he lives vicariously through Joanna’s “adventures” to the market and her encounters in the corridor with their landlady “Pruneface” who has said they need to move out soon. Pruneface doesn’t like that Joanna’s pregnant, and with good reason. It’s Lawrence’s baby and the two refer to each other as husband and wife as often as they do brother and sister. Home Free!, whilst not a scary addition to the London Horror Festival, is a disturbing, excellently performed one-act showing the forgotten and invisible underbelly of an otherwise glamourous city. Untreated mental illness and agoraphobia has enormous consequences for these two innocent twenty-somethings, with Home Free! raising bigger questions about societies that let such a pair slide, unnoticed and unsupported, into catastrophe.

Lanford Wilson’s dialogue is deliberately circular and repetitive, serving to emphasise the cycle of fear that dominates Joanna and Lawrence’s lives. Though necessary, the repetition becomes predictable but this is fortunately a play in a single act. Wilson fully forms the imaginary friends the two have, Claypole and Edna, and Lawrence truly believes they are real – an unsettling device with a surprising impact on the play’s climax. Wilson was one of the pioneers of the New York City fringe theatre scene in the 1960s and it shows in this well-formed play, perfect for a tiny venue like the Etcetera.

This two-hander is adeptly handled by Lindsey Huebner and Rob Peacock, with direction by Courtney Larkin. Larkin focuses on Lawrence’s childlike mannerisms and instinct to see everything in his world as something to play with, occasionally emerging as aggressive attempts to get Joanna into bed despite her protestations. The two have some genuinely sweet moments, particularly when they give each other gifts from their “surprise box” that lives on the bookcase, made all the more unnerving by the awareness that they are brother and sister.

International company Theatrum Veritatus seeks to merge North American and British theatre traditions through their productions, a worthwhile effort in this American play performed in a pub theatre – a quintessential British venue. This production of Home Free! is a good one of a play rarely-staged here, but it’s inclusion in the London Horror Festival is an interesting choice. The horror this play contains is not the kind most familiar to Halloween. There are no ghosts, gouls, or things that go bump in the night. Instead, there’s incest, pathology and no support structure for vulnerable young people. Now that’s a truly frightening thing to imagine.

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.

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.

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.

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.