Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Darktales (Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh Fringe)

Who knew that memorial portraiture was a thing? Well, it was during those notoriously morbid Victorian times, when families would pay photographers to pose their deceased children as if they were alive, and take a keepsake image of them. It is a practice we have difficulty with today, but back in the 19th century, when infant mortality was so much higher, mourning portraits were the obvious way of holding on to loved ones lost. It makes sense, if a somewhat grisly sense seen with our 21st century eyes.

Memorial portraiture is just one of many unpleasant ideas in Tim Arthur's horror story Darktales, which concerns the less-than-subtly-named Alex Crowley, a literature teacher and once celebrated horror author, who invites a former student to his quarters to interview him about his latest novel. His fiction-writing career has been overshadowed by the runaway success 20 years earlier of his book Darktales, a success he has been unable to rekindle since. His new book is to be a sequel, and he asks journalist Jack Langton to record a vlog to help publicise his work.

Nothing is what it seems in this production, and that's as it should be. From the outset, a deliciously queasy, uncanny atmosphere is built up, first by the beautifully gothic set, stuffed with haunted house iconography such as mannequin heads, fallen chandeliers and dusty library books, and then by the introductory ghost story told by Crowley to the audience from a darkened stage.

This M R James-style opening gambit works very well in setting the tone and pace of the production to come. Andrew Paul (best known as PC Dave Quinnan in The Bill) is a genial storyteller, but keeps something back which makes him ever so slightly untrustworthy. The story itself is called Smee, which Crowley claims is his own work, but which we're later told he pinched from Saki (a quick Google claims Smee was actually the work of A M Burrage, but there you go). Smee is a lip-smackingly atmospheric story which would appeal to any fan of the TV series Inside Number 9, and involves a house party, a game of hide and seek, and somebody who isn't really there...

After which the play proper gets underway and we meet Jack (Sean Ward), who arrives to interview Crowley for his vlog. Jack's confidence was crushed by his former tutor's somewhat brutal critique of his student's literary work, and since leaving Crowley's tutorship, Jack claims not to have written a word of fiction. He is now a journalist instead, dealing in facts rather than fancy.

The tale that unravels is full of twists and kinks (enough to demand you concentrate), and a heavy atmosphere is gradually built up through the storytelling which signals to the audience that something is going to happen, something bad, but it's difficult to tell just what, and when. And to who! As truths spill out and grudges are revealed, you think you know where it's going, but there's a deftness in Arthur's script which keeps you on your toes. When the grand finale comes, it's worth the wait and does not disappoint.

Director Dan Clarkson and lighting designer Mike Robertson manage to create a suitably spooky hour of dark and unsettling theatre, while Andrew Paul excels in a part which swings from likeable to disagreeable and back again with disarming regularity. Carrie Marx makes the most of a small but significant role as Lucy (and boy, can she scream!) while Sean Ward brings a melancholy vulnerability to Jack, even if his delivery is a little rushed at times.

And, if nothing else, Crowley's concept of "frogging" is disconcerting enough, and it doesn't even have any bearing on the story! Darktales is a thoroughly effective spookfest which chills the heart and stirs the soul.

The stats
Writer: Tim Arthur
Director: Dan Clarkson
Cast: Andrew Paul (Alex Crowley); Sean Ward (Jack Langton); Carrie Marx (Lucy)
Performed at Pleasance One, Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, August 3rd to 29th, 2016 (not 16th or 23rd). Performance reviewed: August 14th, 2016

Darktales website (retrieved Aug 16 2016)
Beckman Unicorn website (retrieved Aug 16 2016)

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