Horror: The Hallowe’en Sessions
Written by Kim Newman, Stephen Volk, Maura McHugh, Anne Billson, Paul McAuley and Sean Hogan.
Leicester Square Theatre, 29th October – 3rd November
As one goes down from street level, just off Leicester Square, the theatre feels plush, traditionally red, velvety even and yet distinctly underground. Then one is directed further to go deeper below the streets, closer to Hell perhaps, and the walls resemble a mixture of dirty tile work and shattered trees silhouetted in red. While one might wonder how deep this now is, you walk into a room, dark, dressed in filthy tiles, matching oak chairs reeking of institution, and a very beautiful nurse, disinterested in the clientèle, ignoring the mob as they enter, more worried about her finely cut nails than what’s going on, unmoved, uncaring, yet strikingly attractive.
The sessions are vignettes, wonderfully tied together by the setting of a therapy room, under the watchful and sadistic eye of Dr Mara Lark. Her clear suave refined accent jarring one as she tells a patient in such an eloquent yet brutal way that they are ‘fucked in the head’. The dark humour, is very dark here.
This is not a play for the weak of constitution. The five patients all have a story to tell or relive, each distinctive in style, in the telling and by five different writers, while Kim Newman sets the stage for the sessions, in many ways telling the sixth tale.
Thus the group, tainted, teased and psychologically poked by the good Doctor allow us into their most darkest and intimate secrets, their most horrible and horrific moments, seeing what has brought them to this bleak place in both their souls and body.
It is amazing that simple things can create such dreadful consequences, in one sense these patients lives were normal, but somehow that normality was twisted by fate, or there is an unfortunate event, that leads to despair or destruction. No one is as cruel as a human, and there is also a smattering of Black Magic, Demons and Ghosts, alluded to sometimes at other times more visually apparent, all the good fare of the horror genre, but here used to great effect, the stories all felt fresh.
The actors all needed to posses a diversity and flexibility that was remarkable; all had multiple parts, with the secondary roles on occasion as strong and as engaging as the primary. Impressively, despite my initial impression, not only did they pull this off, but did so brilliantly, costume and comportment adding to the conjuring trick that is good acting, sleekly creating a different identity.
Billy Clarke who played a bereaved father, was a strong start, initially, vacant in a most unsettling way, his change as the room darkened to focus solely on his story, the sheer upset of his situation, his loss, his language and even excitement as he literally foamed, was just as unnerving.
Gina Abolins, who played Vivien Fox, a girl who was meek and subjugated, who had a terrible incident occur, which made her realise that everything that she didn’t deserve was upon her, that her kindness, near enthralment was not even going to be repaid, but rather betrayed in a most terrible way did a superlative job. It is perhaps hard for me to describe how professional and perfect the acting was. The Actors were feet away from the audience, and at times inches, and under such close observation, one might think that moments of distress and anger, might be unnatural feeling, but no. Fox was furious with anger, enraged, a red mist upon her and you felt this anger, you could feel the energy and her unhinged power emanating scarily from her, distressingly close and one could see the effort the Abolins had made, sweat upon her neck, and streaks of moisture on her face. Jesus this was a performance that I find hard to put into words.
This was special, there is a calibre about the acting that was undoubtedly matched by the good writing and ultimately the direction.
Language, accents and the way the actors spoke was crucial. During the piece written by Paul MacAuley, his protagonist ‘Tom’ played by Joshua Mayes-Cooper, had the audience in guffaws, his posh accent and affections mockingly brilliant, and the reaction of the other patients, bringing out a humour in the language, his ability to represent a section of society without a hint of disbelief in the character, fantastic.
There was a continual sharpness about the acting, but this was especially so, in moments of movement. The ever present Nurse, Nurse Wretched played by Grace Ker, was an enforcer, occasionally meting out the threat of punishment in a provocative manner, a steely edged danger about her, her terrible beauty allusively dangerous, silently threatening. Violence happened quickly and suddenly and then, she would look like she just didn’t give a damn, the antithesis of everything one might think of a nurse, or in our modern times, perhaps a much more honest reflection of some elements in the care industry, played with great skill by Ker.
There was a fantastic raw energy to the action scenes, a suddenness and a simplicity that looked real. Daniel Brocklebank who played a number of characters with a violent edge to them, did this exceptionally well. Brocklebank possessed the ability to go from reasonable and mild mannered, to dripping in attitude and then to anger and ultimate violence so promptly, and effectively, taking the audience at times by surprise.
This was also true of Holly Lucas, playing Anna, Lucas who looked so young and innocent, so naïve in a way, of course disguising what had occurred to her, such a timid and gentle creature who wouldn’t hurt a fly and yet hiding a terrible experience was played quite excellently, and then Lucas seamlessly switched to a different character, Marika, a spurned woman, with a tremendously passion and a genuine accent and strong physical stage presence while feigning for the audience quite brilliantly what was really going on. Such versatility must be difficult but her portrayal of Marika was a shocker to me, as was that story.
The simple set was changed to suit different situations, and the simplicity of the furniture used was perfect, always allowing one to be taken to a different and believable scene, the acting allowed to flourish and posses the stage area.
Creating a good short story is a difficult, but here the writers have worked hard to surprise the audience, but also then lead them somewhat astray. At one stage I reckoned a story was going in a particular direction, only to watch it twist one way and then, an altogether different way. This thoughtful writing, dealt with many modern horrors or stresses, one could feel various losses very strongly, the fine line between sanity and an act of madness, what that border is in a persons mind, and how delusional a person can be, in such extreme circumstances were all explored brilliantly. There was a lot to think about in these stories, and the alacrity of the tales and their portrayal somehow meshed superbly together to give one an amazing feeling.
Sarah Douglas who played Dr Myra Lark was the gel that linked the stories, bringing everyone back to the communal room, her vicious charm, darkly attractive and enticing, was the character helping at all, being cruel to be kind, she was supremely confident, commanding the stage, controlling and setting a pace, acting perfectly giving brilliantly and beautifully, her sinister side, her darkly powerful charm capturing the whole venue.
I think that director Sean Hogan, who also wrote one of the Vignettes, has managed to bring together an incredible cast, and let’s be correct here, these are fantastic actors, Douglas may be better known to FP readers as Ursa from Superman II, although she has pursued a long and varied career on Stage, Radio as well as the screen, Brocklebank has been in Emmerdale, East Enders and a variety of films, Clarke has been in a host of films, and Abolins, who looks young, defies any perception, with a long list of credits and some excellent reviews.
As I retraced my way back up, and up again to the streets, I was just felt that I had watched a brilliant play. The fact that it was horror, a genre that explores the darker parts of humanity, only added to the questions and thoughts that ran around my head, this is how horror should be, no shambling across the stage, just brilliantly cutting writing and fantastic performances, it was an engrossing and surprising play, and thoroughly enjoyable.