Writer: Karen Henson (from the stories by M. R James)
Director: Karen Henson
Performed by Rumpus Theatre Company
Sound: David Gilbrook
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
There are few more emotive and evocative sounds than that of a young infant’s crying, and this new production from Rumpus Theatre Company plays excellently on that emotion. Alongside the plaintive singing of nursery rhymes such as Rock-a-Bye Baby and Ladybird, Ladybird Fly Away Home, a truly chilling atmosphere is created for a disturbing tale of ghosts and dark, suspicious events long past. What exactly did happen to little Nan “who crept under the frying pan” when the fire broke out; where was the baby; did young Daniel and his mum Mrs Chittenden really live in the old shop down the road; and why can the prim vicar’s daughter at St Sepulchre’s not find any answers?
Everything is very neatly explained in unfolding events after James Dillet brings home a beautifully restored doll’s house that he found in an antique shop. He thinks it an excellent present for his infant daughter, Alice, whom he adores, despite not being her biological father. James fell in love with and married her mother Arabella (Bella) soon after she was left a widow with the tiny babe-in-arms. However Bella is less than impressed by his grand present, it’s six feet tall, makes the room feel cold, and “it’s full of a past life”, so it isn’t long before she tells the hapless James to get rid of it, meanwhile locking the door to the room containing it.
There are proper ghostly goings-on, eerie sounds, light effects, church bells, shrill baby cries, and terrified expressive monologues delivered by a seemingly unhinged Bella, describing horrifying tableaus that she sees played out within the doll’s house during the night. It is however to James, left alone in the room overnight, that the haunted mansion finally reveals its truly horrifying secrets…
Although there are multiple characters in the play, there are only two actors. Anna Mitchum plays all the female rôles, alongside John Goodrum who takes all the male parts. Mitchum’s accents are amazingly good, and she speaks like a native when Cockney, Somerset and Edinburgh tongues are called for. Goodrum too segues easily from an awkward peasant boy who is scrumping apples in the opening scene, into a gentleman with a university education and a career in the city. There are no costume changes, and they merely add props such as a jacket, spectacles or a shawl.
The set is very simple, dominated by a draped triangle of green cloth. There is a cradle one side, and a stack of three boxes the other, with a small box representing the doll’s house in the foreground. It seems somehow disappointing that there is no actual doll’s house, and the only physical part that is seen is a couple of the dolls from it. The lighting is very effective at creating atmosphere, and a red wash illuminating Bella’s face from below is particularly horrifying.
On the whole, it all seems somewhat passé, rather like all the other contemporary theatre productions of horror stories that are meant to shock. To this reviewer’s mind, the play seems suspiciously similar to the stage version of The Woman in Black, a view that is doubly reinforced when the cradle begins to rock in the manner of the infamous chair in the playroom. Go and see this production if the chance comes along, the acting is excellent and the production is well-staged, but just don’t wait to be scared out of your wits.
Touring Nationwide | Image: Contributed