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Ghost Stories By Candlelight – Old Library, Colchester

Reviewer: Michael Gray

Writer : Kelly Jones, Shamser Sinha and Nicola Werenowska

Composer: Georgia Shackleton

Director : Elayce Ismail

We gather in the imposing, philanthropic space of Colchester’s Old Library – it has its own atmosphere, like most of the venues on this carefully curated tour, which began in Bury St Edmunds Georgian Theatre Royal, and ends in November in the iconic candlelight of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe.

The small acting area is populated with candles and anglepoise lamps. On the floor, a few white feathers drift in the draught from the door. The three actors enter through the audience – dressed in white, with a folk song and a violin.

This haunting song will link the three contemporary ghost stories – common threads run through them, too, but they are very different, individual pieces, by three writers from different backgrounds.

All three are set in the East of England. Lowestoft first, for The Beach Hut from Nicola Werenowska. The mum taking her stroppy teen to the seaside is the antithesis of M R James’s characters [the master of terrifying tales gets a nod in the programme]. But the ingredients are the same: tension building as the wind howls and the gulls circle, the ordinary becoming the stuff of nightmares, the footprints, the mist. A superbly realised monologue, this, with minimal stage effects – the tiny ball of light for the necklace. To say more might spoil your goose-bump moments, if you are lucky enough to see this contemporary re-imagining of a classic genre.

Pin Mill next – heath and woodland overlooking the Orwell – for Shamser Sinha’s Sacrifice. In the dark beneath the trees, a mother and daughter argue, ingeniously lit by hand-held flash-lights. The girl has foraged for berries to bake in a flap-jack. The mother is dealing with grief, completing a last penance. A deer calf lies dying. This piece is brought to life with pace and energy in the “tragic duel”, the lights almost a third character. And there’s a shocking twist at the end.

We end in the ominous atmosphere of Romford’s high street night life. In Kelly Jones’s Run, young Izzy, Betfair cashier, is on her way home. She meets Ron, one of her regular punters. But as she clutches her keys and her mobile ever tighter, the mood darkens and her nerve falters. Buses are cancelled as she watches the departure board. The bus-stops scatter and vanish, the battery bars on her phone disappear. Should she ignore her mother’s advice and take the short-cut through the sea of darkness that is the park ?

The language of this monologue is alive and inventive, the ending redemptive, positive and life-affirming.

It’s left to the music to point the moral:


“A sea mist descends.

The hound howls.

Sodium streetlights twitch.

A falcon soars above, on the hunt.”

That’s the stories and the song in four lines. The singer is a Peregrine Falcon, displaced from cliff to cathedral centuries since as the fens are drained. The Curse of the Fen can be lifted only if the bird can gather what she needs for her violin – there’s the rusty key from the beach hut, strands of red hair caught on the park railings. And, as she tells us in the refrain, if a peregrine can change things in the natural world for the better, maybe it’s time for humankind to take a stand.

The three actors sustain the atmosphere brilliantly. They are Katie Cherry, making an impressive professional debut here, Elizabeth Crarer, and Loren O’Dair, the musician. Not a word, not a gesture is superfluous. The performers support one another in eloquently choreographed movement. In accents from Estuary and East Anglia they give a voice to the women whose stories they share with us. Three tales and musical links, all in little more than an hour. The simplicity of the setting, the white costumes – varied from one tale to the next – and of course the low-tech lighting [the peregrine silhouetted against the hunter’s moon] and the candles, all add to the atmosphere, making this a worthy contemporary addition to the age-old tradition of supernatural stories told in the uncertain light of candles.

Touring until 25 November 2023

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The South East team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. 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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