Written on the Waves: The You Play Volume II: A Haunted Woman – 45North/Ellie Keel Productions

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Rafaella Marcus

Director: Jessica Lazar

Rafaella Marcus’ The You Play was one of the great audio dramas of 2020, and, in a flood of newly recorded pieces created by the enforced theatre closures, it proved one of the most fascinating explorations of the genre, playing with concepts of narrative identity, immersion and sound effects to deliver a truly unique dramatic experience. Marcus is back with a follow-up, The You Play Volume II: A Haunted Woman now available from 45 North which proves just as intriguing with an atmospheric tale of love, loneliness and possession that arrives in time to for a thrilling Christmas chill.

Trapped in her room, these are the last words of the narrator captured on a Dictaphone as something nasty approaches. She is frightened and anxious about the sounds around her, the footsteps by the door and the creaking emptiness of the house. While she waits for its arrival, she reminisces about her relationship with a musician, a man whose career did not work out as hoped and as their marriage crumbles, the distance between them becomes tangible. Alone, she makes shadow puppets and, in the light, makes them dance against the wall. But her last creation doesn’t look like a puppet at all…

In this second edition of The You Play instead of being the subject, the listener becomes the addressee, the cold musician husband listening to this recording in playback at some unspecified date, making you an integral part of the story. Over time, Marcus slowly fills in some of the details about your gender, relationship to the speaker and past experiences together that help to create investment while, as a retrospective story, it leaves you powerless to affect what is happening. And that is part of Marcus’ skill, weaving a narrative of fear, anticipation and memory that holds you gripped for its entire 50-minute running time.

Like many audio dramas there is a practical element if you want to play along, creating a prop that will have a darker significance as the tale unfolds, but Marcus’s work is at its best in weaving together the anxious present with the history of the relationship to date, evoking the financial struggles but blissful happiness of the early days in drafty flats and the slow decline of the romance as reality and familiarity allows contempt to grow between them. As a result, the tone of the unfolding story shifts brilliantly, moving from a classic ghost story, obsessed with light and shadow, to something more obscure, forcing the listener to question the narrator’s perspective and the events revealed; is she experiencing a genuine haunting, some kind of breakdown or a form of overwhelming depression caused by loneliness in which the ever-present shadows keep coming for her?

Olivia Williams is excellent as the unnamed central character, balancing the storytelling aspects with the creation of character while instructions given to the listener to create their own prop, all of which she does without losing the momentum of the drama. There are so many tones and shapes in Williams’ delivery that moves from intimate whispers of confederacy, an easiness that speaks to the long-established connection with the musician husband, as well as the breathy panic as the presumed monster closes in. Most effective is the stillness and consistency with which Williams delivers her character’s voice, allowing Marcus’ words to alter the listener’s perspective on the protagonist’s equilibrium.

The audio effects include creaks and crackles in both the house and the recording to give a sense of impending doom and interrupted transmission, while music is used sparingly but to up the ante at crucial moments. The You Play Volume II: A Haunted Woman may not be feel quite as radical as the first edition and leaves the audience with many unanswered questions about how and why the ground shifted between the characters, but that snapshot approach eventually feeds into the creepy, ambiguous effect that the writer intends. Marcus is pushing the boundaries of this audio form, so if and when a third edition arrives, it will be unmissable.

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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