The Fright Before Christmas – The Space, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writers: Sarah Hamilton, Jane Morris, Rachel O’Neill, Ben Whitehead, Freddie Valdosta and Rachel Bellman

Ghost stories are particularly popular around Christmastime, perhaps even more so than around Halloween. Maybe it’s the longer nights, the frost on the air. Or maybe it’s just the need to counteract the brightness of tinsel and carollers.

Whatever the reason, it feels like the right time of year for an evening of six ten-minute horror plays, presented in an informal competition format with each piece introduced by drag queen Lady Aria Grey and commented upon by a panel of three horror experts, with an audience vote at the end.

First up is the only Christmas-themed piece, Sarah Hamilton’s All I Want For Christmas… Is You. Hamilton takes the scenario of a woman living alone in a remote cottage – here seemingly in some form of safe house – and who has been warned to not let anyone in. But when another woman, whose car has broken down in the middle of a violent rainstorm, turns up on the doorstep, a series of surprising and macabre twists take the short piece down avenues one would not have suspected it going in.

Women’s vulnerability is even more to the fore in Eight Legs, Eight Arms by Jane Morris, who grounds her horror in the fear women have walking home alone. The scenario is given a Lovecraftian twist by making the central character, who is desperate to reach her front door before her pursuer catches up with her, an octopus. This move into the surreal allows Morris to explore women’s place in the history of crime, although it feels like her ideas feel over-compressed into the time allotted.

In contrast, Rachel O’Neill’s They Comes struggles to fill the time. A married couple’s squabbles descend into a shouting match about whether or not to have children, prompted by one partner’s pushy family. Unfortunately with no connection with the central characters, the circular arguments quickly tend toward tediousness. The horror aspect only emerges right at the end, by which point it feels too much time has been wasted on the mundane.

Mundane could hardly describe the fascinating performance of Ben Whitehead, who performs his own The Sister Inside. Dressed in a white sheet and top hat, his intentionally comic delivery unfortunately also means he has to deal with a well-lubricated crowd. But while the opening moments of his Gothic, rhyming story of a woman whose unborn twin is growing inside her are blighted by distracting heckles, his tale is absorbing enough that the interruptions soon die down. Whitehead’s vivid writing and recitation result in a truly haunting piece.

Contrasting nicely with Whitehead’s gothic Victoriana is Freddie Valdosta’s Flip the Switch, rooted in the modern world and inside the head of a man with obsessive compulsive and other personality disorders. The voice inside his head – also booming out to the audience – drives him to utter torment. Horror is always strongest when it close to reality, and having Valdosta’s piece rooted in very real psychoses makes its final twist all the more gut-wrenching.

Rounding out the evening of horror pieces, Rachel Bellman’s Tooting Bec Asylum offers a more conventional haunting, as a woman’s new-build flat is haunted by ghosts from the asylum on which it has been built. Offstage sound effects come to the fore to portray the sense of encroaching spirits, but it is the relationship between actors Niamh Bennett and Charlie White as the couple being haunted that marks this piece out.

With a particularly strong second half, it is no surprise that Valdosta’s Flip the Switch grabs most votes from the audience. But with horror an underserved stage medium, and one that is particularly tricky to pull off well, having six writers attack the genre with such vigour is a prize in itself.

Reviewed on 11 December 2021

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Diverse evening of new horror writing

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