Well here’s a successful formula. Stephen Mallatratt’s dramatisation of Susan Hill’s novel, directed by Robin Herford, first hit the stage of London’s Fortune Theatre in 1989 and is still going, making it London’s second longest running play after The Mousetrap. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen it twice in London; once a few years after it opened, and a second time in the early 2000s. It works best in a small, intimate theatre like the Fortune, which only seats about 430 people, so the cynic in one could say that a small theatre helps get you a long run; but the truth is that it’s a finely crafted, beautifully written play that delights and will continue to delight audiences purely on its own merit, no matter the size of the theatre.
The current run of the play at the Royal in Northampton is a case in point – there are hardly any seats left for any show and last night’s performance was a full house. The Royal is an absolutely perfect location for the play; Victorian, elegant, atmospheric, maybe a little spooky. The setting for the play is inside the very theatre where it is being staged (wherever that may be), and the set itself cleverly overlaps the usual stage area and spills out into the front stalls with additional walkways and pits, blurring the boundary between where the performance begins and the audience ends, which is a vital aspect of the story. As the action unfolds, you also realise that the solid looking but old and scruffy curtain at the back of the stage is not in fact a back boundary, but that lots of activity can be revealed behind it too.
If you haven’t seen the play, here’s a little taster of what it’s about, without, hopefully, giving too much away. Elderly Arthur Kipps (nothing to do with Half a Sixpence) has written out a lengthy account of what happened to him long ago when as a young solicitor he was required to attend the funeral of an old client living in a remote old house, and then sort through her papers afterwards. He has hired the theatre so that he can recount his tale to his family and friends in the hope it will put an end to his prolonged anxiety about the past. He has enlisted the assistance of an actor, who desperately tries to make him perform his story as a gripping yarn – but Kipps is no actor. They therefore decide that the actor will play Kipps, and Kipps will fill out the story with words from the minor characters. Thus we watch rehearsals of the story being acted out; but you soon forget that it’s just a rehearsal – what happens to young Kipps becomes very real indeed.
The play has intricate lighting and sound plots which transform the stage into whatever your imagination wants, or suspects, or fears. The lighting and sound effects play such an important part in the play, it’s almost as though they are the third and fourth performers – or fifth, depending on your point of view. What’s wonderful about the way these effects work is that they’re not remotely sensationalist or gruesome; they’re realistic and subtle, although rarely reassuring. The effect on the audience is of an overwhelming impact – from the set, the sounds, the lights, the characters but primarily perhaps from your own imagination.
This touring production is blessed with two excellent performances. Julian Forsyth plays Kipps with authority, dignity and not without humour when the text demands it. He gives life to all the side characters and I especially enjoyed him as Mr Jerome the agent in Crythin Gifford and as Sam Daily who tries to warn him of the dangers he faces. As the story becomes more urgent and terrifying, so Mr Forsyth’s narration becomes more animated and vivid. It’s a very powerful performance.
The nameless actor is played by Antony Eden, slightly foppish in appearance, and exuding that slight arrogance of a young man whose world/oyster ratio is improving heartily. Bright-eyed and innocent until his first night in Eel Marsh House, his subsequent rise in fearfulness and decline in confidence are convincingly portrayed so that we, the audience, share in everything that he experiences – and it’s scary. If I have a criticism, it would be that the very final twist in the tale didn’t come across with quite the force that I would have expected. But that may be due to the behaviour of certain sections of the audience…
The play is currently part of the GCSE Drama curriculum. This may account for the large number of young people in the audience last night. Now, I accept this is a scary play. Its whole objective is to put the willies up you; and of course it wouldn’t be doing its job if there weren’t a few loud sharp intakes of breath, some involuntary exclamations of fear, some nervous laughter. I learned last night that teenage girls don’t do sharp intakes of breath. What they do is scream – loudly, sustained, for anything up to seven seconds per outburst. It was like there was a whole swathe of Violet Elizabeths at the back. The effect of this is manifold – first, you get people around them going “shush”; then you get other members of the audience laughing at their reaction; finally you realise that you haven’t heard the last few speeches on the stage because of the audience noise and distraction. There is a fourth too – which is that you dread the next scary bit in case they do it again. Rest assured, they do. I don’t want to be an old curmudgeon, and I do remember the exuberance of youth – honestly – but that level of noise can definitely be filed in the over-reaction drawer. Boy, am I glad I was sitting nowhere near them. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would have said “Empty Vessels make the Most Noise”, in that slightly priggish way of hers. Sadly, the overall effect of the screams was to replace enjoyable fear with something a bit more camp, to the detriment of the performance as a whole. Back to that final twist – the audience were generally unsettled by one of these over-reactions a few seconds previously, and I believe that they were too distracted to take in the significance of that final couple of sentences; shame.
I wouldn’t want you to think that only the young misbehaved in the theatre last night – oh no. Despite being given one of the clearest, most thoughtful, most reasoned requests at the beginning of the play to switch off our mobile phones, phones went off at least four times in the first act. The first was about ten minutes in; a gentle, otherwise pleasing tune of sunny disposition that emerged from somewhere to my right. A rustle of bags and coats and it was fairly quickly silenced. After about another ten minutes came number two – from somewhere quite close to me – and this time the phone had obviously been set to vibrate, but it must have been rattling against something as it sounded as loud as a lion’s purr. Unfortunately the owner declined to do anything about it, so it purred away for a good minute before the caller decided to give up. This was a heavy distraction from the action – and I could tell that Mr Eden was put off by it too, as he stumbled a little over his words during that sequence. Five minutes later, the caller decided to try again; and this time the woman directly to my left did an audible sigh – of inconvenience rather than embarrassment – picked up her handbag, took it out and turned it off. After about another fifteen minutes yet another phone went off – again the vibrating sound, again causing great annoyance to everyone around, again leading to noisy coat rustling, handbag clasp snapping and other assorted fumblings. I really was amazed and dismayed by how much interference came from mobiles last night. No wonder before Act Two started the disembodied voice reminded us to turn the bloody things off again (my words, not his). That just left Mrs C to be irritated in the second half by the person on her right and their plentiful supply of wrapped sweets, best consumed in the quietest moments, apparently.
Nevertheless, as for the play, it still has the ability to shock and terrify, but with subtlety and reason, and no loose end in the story is left untied at the end. A very good production, and certainly worth catching; but please, think before you scream, and turn that phone off!