DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Upon the Stair – Harrogate Theatre, Harrogate

Reviewer: Ruth Jepson

Written by: Adam Z. Robinson

Directed by: Dick Bonham

“You are free to leave, but you do not leave free…”

Upon the Stair is the latest offering from theatre company The Book of Darkness & Light. Previous shows The Book of Darkness & Light and Shivers set up a framing device of lost souls recounting tales from a mysterious, almost hellish, book of horror stories, but it isn’t necessary to have seen either to enjoy this newest production. For the third outing, the company have developed their one Storyteller (Adam Z. Robinson) and a Musician (violinist Chloe Hayward) format, adding a British Sign Language (BSL) component with The Shade (Raffie Julien) who uses a mix of live BSL interpretation and physical theatre to enhance the stories being woven by Robinson.

Three stories are presented on a set highly reminiscent of The Woman in Black. Three ruined house panels shift around to take centre stage for each tale (although the effect is slightly lowered with the very visible bright white wheels on show). The Musician stands in semi-darkness throughout, blending perfectly into the background but completely present as the notes reaching into your spine send shivers throughout your body. The first story, The Cry of the Bubák is a slow burner from both performers, based on a monster from Czeck folklore and telling the tale of a guilt ridden, voluntarily institutionalised man. Mirrorman then allows Julien to take centre stage, in a pre-recorded reminisce of the 11th birthday of Tippi (Lynsey Jones), talking of family traditions and a party turned creepy. Robinson then re-joins for final tale The Xylotheque, hitting home the true horror with a story about cleaning out the library of a suspected warlock-cum-mad scientist.

All three are very well written by Robinson, and his lyrical voice brings them to life so vividly that simply watching him speak is enough to bring them to life. The audience are transfixed as Robinson modulates his voice to present a fussy librarian, a stubborn groundskeeper, a mild mannered inmate. As in previous tours, he could have commanded the stage completely with just Hayward’s accompaniment. However by opening the stage to Julien The Book of Darkness and Light have elevated their shows to the next level. Whereas theatre usually just shoves the BSL interpreter to the side, only to be watched by BSL speaking audience members, The Shade is even more in the foreground than The Storyteller. The blend of movement and BSL is beautiful and to watch, even for non-BSL speakers. Julien is a trained dancer, and this is clear in the level of grace and emotion she brings to the stage. Something that could have been distracting has been incorporated so seamlessly that it seems incredible that it hasn’t been the norm for many years. If Robinson presents the characters, it is Julien that makes them live.

Upon the Stair is one of those shows that don’t come around very often. All elements – set, lighting, music, script and performance – work together perfectly, and to incorporate BSL so seamlessly doesn’t come off as tokenism or a gimmick as it could easily have done. The opening night in Harrogate was not well attended, and that is practically criminal in itself. Everyone needs to see this show. Just be warned that you might not sleep well afterwards. Especially if your bedroom has a mirror…

Runs until Sunday 29th February 2020

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. 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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