Lost Hearts – Viking Theatre – Dublin

Reviewer: Emmet McCarthy

Writer: M.R. James

Adapted: Michael James Ford and Stewart Roche

Director: Liam Hannigan

An innocent 12 year old orphan boy is sent to live in a remote country pile with his eccentric relative only to discover that forces of darkness are lurking around every corner. What on the surface seems like a harmless candle lit ghost story of yesteryear slowly uncovers a darker layer of sinister.

M.R. James was one of the earliest writers of the Jamesian ghost story. His tales rose to popularity in the early 1920’s and would later become a staple of ghoulish storytelling on British radio plays. It is in his descriptions of what you don`t see that captivates. For example, a ghostly figure as having ‘fingernails as long as a soldier’s bayonette’. One of his early writings Lost Hearts, adapted here for the stage by Michael James Ford and Stewart Roche relies heavily on the same.

We find ourselves in 1870s London where a young man called Stephen with an opium addiction arrives for a hypnotherapy session with experimental Doctor Olsen. A retrieval of repressed memories takes place. Swiftly the audience is transported back in time to Aswarby Hall to be introduced to the 12 year old Stephen who’s life has already been turned upside-down by the loss of his parents. Housekeeper Mrs Bunch played warmly by Bairbre Ni Chaoimh is on hand to settle us in and add some lovely moments of light comedy. The cook from Downtown Abbey comes to mind. When Mr Abney arrives you only have slight suspicion that something is off but it’s when he starts to mention pagan practices something really starts to feel amiss.

Michael James Ford is a great presence on stage playing both Abney and the Doctor; the timbre of his voice carries a real believability. His Mr Abney feels though it could take on little more of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde journey. This play is most impactful when it leans on the taking of innocence from a young child. Kyle Hixon as Stephen, although an extremely solid actor, has not been directed to play on this element enough. Perhaps miscast but a further push in the direction of a more childlike nature when playing the young 12 year old would really have upped the stakes for the audience and made the darkness that bit more shocking.

Most impressive was the use of just the right amount of video projections. They transported us
cleverly to Aswarby Hall exterior scenes and delivered an eerie spectral force towards the crescendo of the play. Specially adapted and recorded music by Philip Dodd and Donal Wallace was a highlight adding a real sense of era. A special mention should made of the costumes by Rowena Cunningham. This production was one of her last to work on before she passed away earlier this year. Each piece added greatly to the character development, from the young Stephen’s fetching red velvet waistcoat to the addition of those ominous dangling keys on Mrs Bunches petticoat.

The devil is in the detail!

Runs until 30 November 2022.

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The Ireland team is currently under the editorship of Laura Marriott. 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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