Review: Stagefright – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Beware things that go bump in the night, things may not be all they‘re cracked up to be. In the darkened manager’s office in the eaves of London’s Lyceum Theatre, Henry Irving has just finished entertaining the Prince Of Wales with his Faust. His manager, Bram Stoker, is working on a manuscript about a Transylvanian Count.

It’s a dark and stormy night and an empty theatre can spook even the sturdiest soul but Irving is worried that his portrayal of Mephistopheles may have invoked malevolent spirits. As doors start to close unaided and lights flicker, is seems there are spectral forces keeping the two men company in the otherwise deserted theatre.

Ghost stories are notoriously difficult to pull off on stage; horror is a subtle genre with the mind being the most effective special effect. In a theatre, though, you need to generate something tangible to get your audience to jump out of their seat and it’s a delicate balance to find that effect that gives enough for the ear and eye yet still gives the mind room to add its own level of fear. Tension and fear need to build, things need to just barely register on the senses to create a feeling of apprehension.

Sadly, on opening night of Stagefright, the balance isn’t there. The story has potential but the overall result is laughter rather than screams.

There is real potential in Michael Punter’s tale, with the world of theatrical superstition and the interaction between the two characters providing ample scope to weave both a chilling ghost story and also an insight into two giants of the creative arts. That potential isn’t realised, however, dialogue is rambling and we never get a real insight into these two or enough suspense to make the chills believable. Lines such as ‘I have had you in bondage’ reduce the audience to giggles rather than on the edge of their seats.

It is perhaps the technical aspects of the show that let down the production most. Without wishing to provide spoilers for future audiences, let’s just say that some of the illusions recall a clapped-out seaside ghost train ride rather than anything truly spectral; the lighting needs to be much more evocative and subtle and the soundscape needs to rely less on volume and provide a subtle aural underscore.

There are a couple of ‘jump’ moments but not enough to sustain the chills. Further tension is lost in a laborious scene change before the final scene and, overall, the whole thing needs to be much tighter. The script and production should drive us forward to a terrifying climax but, on the few occasions the chills do build, they soon evaporate.

Jonathan Keeble and Barry Ward have some chemistry between them, though performances would benefit from being dialled down from melodrama a couple of notches. Yes, Irving was ‘theatrical’ but the over-theatrical performance loses characterisation and steps quite clearly into parody.

In the historical setting of the Regency Theatre Royal, there are the workings of a genuinely chilling ghost story but Director Colin Blumenau and his creative team should take a close look at the production. A tightening of the script, a look at bringing the relationship between Irving and Stoker to a naturalistic fore and some urgent revisiting of the technical production values will pay dividends.

Young audience members of the audience screamed in places on opening night but, when the overall sound you hear at a ghost story is laughter, you know something is deadly wrong.

More Carry On Screaming than Paranormal Activity.

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