Writer & Director: Michael Punter
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
As the clocks go back we are now on a slide toward the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year that signals Christmas, celebration and festivity. While midsummer’s eve is normally associated with pagan spirits, what if the winter equivalent led to equally furtive activities? Michael Punter’s one-act play Skerryvore, showing at the Old Red Lion as part of the London Horror Festival, imagines an evening of dark mystery long after Halloween.
On a cold winter night on the isle of Skerryvore three crewmen at the lighthouse disappeared without a trace leaving their home abandoned. 20-years later a scientist in London presents an experiment to the Physical and Psychical Education society, a hysterical young woman with a deep trauma. Under hypnosis and before our eyes Mary Campbell will reveal the truth about Skerryvore.
Michael Punter’s new play uses all the stylings of a late nineteenth-century natural science lecture to the gentlemen of an intellectual society, and, with just two actors, creates a tangible sense of both the location of the talk and of the remote and hostile experience of Skerryvore. There is lot of research on display and Punter has clearly used it well to inspire an engaging and unusual approach to storytelling, one that offers plenty of dramatic possibilities.
Skerryvore is initially driven by two competing narratives that make the early part of the show a little uneventful, prioritising the explanation of Professor Barrett’s experimental methods and approach above more fully seeding the mystery story which slightly prolongs the action. Barrett describes how the hypnosis will force Mary to confront the past, and then outlines the stages of hysteria which add to the effect but at the expense of the tension which dissipates.
The snatches of Mary’s regression to Skerryvore are full of colour, details of the unforgiving landscape, the excitement of Christmas and the lives of the three men who disappeared including her uncle. Punter has the now 12-year old Mary become these characters as part of her trance, acting out the part of Cockney first mate Christopher Lang who sings sea shanties, second mate James Murdo and her uncle Donald Mcpherson’s booming Scottish voice.
Rachel McCarron is excellent as the initially nervous Mary unwilling to come onto the stage but once her hypnotic state is active instantly exudes enthusiasm and eagerness as her younger self. McCarron’s performance is central to creating so much of the atmosphere as well as effortlessly embodying the other local personalities to create plenty of comedy before building to a very dark final act.
Bill Allender is a commanding presence as our guide to the evening, reflecting well the show-and-tell nature of the “Chamber of Demonstration.” Allender is a convincing scientist, relying on logic and evidence but suggesting a panic when events develop beyond his control.
Punter’s play could do a little more to build the tension and danger from the beginning, perhaps foregoing some of the more descriptive passages to eek out the events of solstice night on Skerryvore and its consequences. Nonetheless, this is an intriguingly constructed and smart horror-drama that is perfect for Halloween and might just ruin your Christmas as well.
Runs Until 28 October 2018 | Image: Contributed