Ghost Stories of an Antiquary – Longfield Hall, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: M R James, adapted by the company

Director: Nicholas Benjamin

There is perhaps no better exponent of the British horror short story than M. R. James. His work, chilling enough in printed form, has also been frequently adapted for television and film, forming the spine of the BBC’s semi-regular Ghost Story for Christmas strand.

Midnight Circle Theatre Company has taken four of his stories, each of which features in James’s 1904 anthology Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and crafted its own narrative to give structure to tales that share a similar feeling of creeping dread but are otherwise set in very different environments.

Here, the framing device is that we are in 1940s London, and three people are sheltered in a hall managed by a fourth after the sounding of an air raid siren. To pass the time, they begin to tell each other ghost stories, each assuming roles in the others’ tales.

This allows the company to weave in the macabre story of Lost Hearts, in which a twelve-year-old orphan is haunted by nightmares of other children with their hearts ripped out, alongside The Ashtree, a tale of witchcraft, curses and supernatural revenge. Throughout both, Niamh Handley-Vaughn impresses dramatically and comedically in several roles, with a chameleon-like Nadia Lamin taking on a range of distinguishable characters.

Perhaps most effective is The Mezzotint, the story of a haunted artwork whose contents contain a malevolent threat. Here, the use of near darkness, torchlight, and sounds in the darkness exemplifies the sort of horror in which James excelled – less with jump scares and more with the building sense of inevitable terror.

However, as with the other stories, their conclusions never quite come off. Partly, it’s down to the story-within-a-story framing, which leaves the audience feeling one step away from the true horrors within. But there’s also a rush back each time to the wartime narrative, never leaving the finale of each storytime to sit and breathe.

A struggle, too, is that the new setting – which, of course, has its own supernatural elements to be revealed – never quite feels as fully formed or magnificent as the James stories it surrounds. At times, too, the devised nature of how the company has come to its adaptation reveals itself a little too strongly. While several attempts to inject humour in the scenarios work, others come across more as the actors, rather than their characters, who are having fun (at one point, an overenthusiastic character played by Miles Blanch is told to calm down, but the admonition is addressed directly to the actor).

Another difficulty is that director Nicholas Benjamin’s character, Professor Parkin, starts proceedings being rather overwrought. As events in the wartime shelter spiral, his character has nowhere further to develop, robbing us of an involving emotional arc. It also doesn’t help that the fourth story, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, in which Parkin takes a central role, doesn’t quite have the impact of the others. There is less opportunity in this story for darkness to be used, and as a result, the tale feels overhit in comparison to its peers.

The conclusion of the World War II narrative cannot hope to match James’s skill for leaving the audience in a state of unease, but that’s not for the lack of trying on the part of the company.

As we are released into the night, the mark of good horror is how readily we are able to suspect that, like so many of James’s protagonists, we are to be pursued by a spectral demon beckoning us to our inevitable doom. In the quiet Camberwell streets around Longfield Hall, we can at least say: job done.

Continues until 27 April 2024

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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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