“What’s this? Has World Geekly News gone all cultured? They’ve never reviewed theatre before!”
To that, sir, I say: a) Yes and b) I resent the implication that just because we normally to talk about films, games and comics and that we’re not cultured. So there (enough with the “hilarious” intro now, just get on with the review, Ed.). Er. Quite. Sorry. I use humour as a defence mechanism when I’m scared.
I first heard about The Haunting of Blaine Manor in an M.R. James appreciation group on Facebook where fellow member Joe O’Byrne often shares details about a play he has written and directed. For ages, I’ve been wanting to see it but it’s never been at a theatre near me on a date when I could go. Until a week last Friday, 21st June, when it was due to appear at Sale Waterfront – just a quick drive across the city for me. “At last!”, I said and asked my wife if she wanted to go.
“I would, but…”
“But? What do you mean but?”
“Our friend who really hates horror, and who found The Lost Boys to be the utter pinnacle of terror, is coming to stay that weekend.”
Bugger. I’d been waiting years and I thought the planets had finally aligned on this one. (Are you ever going to get to the play?, Ed.). Yes – patience. It’s relevant, I promise (It had better be, Ed.).
To cut a long story short (please do, Ed.), I decided that the three of us would go anyway and bought the tickets (I did ask, first, but made it quite clear I really wanted to see this and not going to see it would ruin my weekend). She relented but entered in extremely tentatively.
Blaine Manor, 1953. This house is haunted. Or might be. But probably actually isn’t. That’s what paranormal investigator Roy Earle (Peter Slater) is aiming to prove. Having made his name and fortune on finding logical explanations for supposed supernatural occurrences around the world he jumps at the chance to attend a seance at the manor and debunk it’s famous ghost story once and for all. He is accompanied by stage mind-reader Cairo (Andrew Yates), retired medium Scarabus (Phil Dennison) and journalist Vivian (Jo Haydock) all of whom are far less sceptical. Rounding out the cast are the owner’s representative Vincent (Ed Barry) and Blaine Manor’s butler Grady (director Joe O’Byrne).
Almost immediately after meeting most of the cast we are blindsided when we learn that the owner of the house has died in suspicious circumstances. As a storm rages outside the six are forced to spend the night in the house. This sets the tone for the first half of the play and what follows is not so much a spookfest as a Christie-esque murder mystery coupled with a Hitchcock-like psychological thriller as we learn more about each character’s damaged background and this mysterious death which binds them all together. There are gentle rumblings of ghostliness here and there, and a book detailing the manor’s troubled history throws shades of folk horror into the mix as we hear tales of witchcraft and mummery. There’s also a strangely hypnotic painting which adds to the creep factor.
However, when the curtain came down at the interval we were left with questions not so much “is there a ghost?” as “who killed the owner?” and “what is Joe not telling us about his wife’s untimely death”. This, in my opinion, is part of the play’s charm and coup de maître as it lulls us into a false sense of security. We start to sympathise with Roy’s scepticism, wondering if all the others are victims of mass hysteria.
It’s in the second half when the true nature of the house begins to manifest and the ante is well and truly upped. Revelations come thick and fast leading to a devastating, yet also darkly humorous denouement. I had one or two ideas about what was really going on, and in a way, I was kind of right, but it turns out I didn’t foresee two or three further twists which really changed my interpretation of events. I loved this about the play as just when I thought I had it all wrapped up, like one of those pesky kids, I was wrongfooted once more and thrown back into the mystery.
The second half is also where O’Byrne as director and the technical team get their time to shine. As with some of the best ghost stories (like The Haunting or The Others) it’s what you don’t see that really starts to get under your skin. Sound design plays a large part in playing with our perception of what’s going on, and lighting is used to wonderful effect – occasionally the stage is sparsely lit by a single candelabra while other times the entire area is bathed in an unearthly glow or unexpected lightning strikes. While the play generally eschews jump scares for an atmosphere of building dread, the technical crew do provide one or two genuinely heart-stopping moments, which don’t feel at all cheap or unearned (as they often can do in horror-themed films or plays).
The set design is great too. The entire play unfolds in a drawing room which is dressed with period props and items of furniture – some quite everyday items like bookcases and wireless radios, but one or two other creepy ornaments add a sinister touch. And then there’s the painting. We never actually see as it is mounted on “the fourth wall” but it still very much plays an interesting role and adds to the mystery.
All the cast were good – Slater and Haydock provide a believable, emotional core to the story while Barry, Dennison and Yates ham their roles up gloriously, which sounds like an insult but it just works so well, adding to both the melodramatic and comedic aspects (and there are many funny moments) of the play. But I want to give a special mention to O’Byrne’s Grady the Butler. From the minute he opened his mouth I got a real sense of unease – even when it was something quite mundane like offering to fetch a drink. I don’t know if the name of the character was deliberate but I got the same vibes from him as I did from the film version of Delbert Grady, the bartender in The Shining.
Influences range from M.R. James (Casting the Runes in particular) to Poe, Hammer Horror, Agatha Christie, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (the stage rendition especially) and even a little hint of Scooby Doo. What I took away from an enjoyable two hours was the feeling of having watched a live version of one of those classic BBC Ghost Stories For Christmas from the 1970s – on more than one occasion I was heavily reminded of the fantastic Nigel Kneale penned The Stone Tape.
I can’t really say much more without giving away the true nature of the house so if you want to know who or what really is haunting Blaine Manor (if anything is at all) then I must heartily recommend you to go to see it!
Oh, and if my praise of the play, as an avid consumer of horror is not enough, then perhaps take heart in the fact that my friend also thoroughly enjoyed it! (I think you and I need to have a chat about the meaning of the word ‘relevant’, Ed.)
The Haunting Of Blaine Manor continues to tour around the north of England throughout the summer and autumn, culminating in a special Halloween night performance in Whitby. Further details of the tour can be found on Joe’s website.