King's Arms, Salford
16 August 2016 to 20 August 2016
Joe O'Byrne is a familiar name and face on Manchester's independent theatre scene, not least for his Tales From Paradise Heights series of productions. This is something different, though, a genre piece inspired by classic haunted house stories or, as he says, "something that would fit the world of M R James, Edgar Allan Poe or H P Lovecraft".
He was further inspired by wanting to create "something that was a throwback to the Hollywood Golden Age, a dangerously dashing and glamorous time when you would see the likes of Claude Rains, Vincent Price, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre Boris Karloff, Bette Davis, George Sanders, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Lauren Bacall, Ida Lupino, Carole Lombard and Virginia Mayo strutting their stuff."
You get the general idea, I'm sure, but this unsettling sojourn in Blaine Manor is something rather more interesting than a mere exercise in pastiche or the immature "BOO!" antics of the inexplicably popular, profoundly unscary The Woman In Black.
Without giving too much away about the twist at the end, there is an actual point to the theatricality of these dark events in "the most haunted house in England," where the locals fear to tread.
It's set in 1953, although time is a flexible concept as in most ghost stories. Gathered in this allegedly cursed British stately home for a seance as a storm rages outside (of course) are a motley crew including the token American Roy Earle (Peter Slater), a paranormal investigator, famed for exposing charlatans but tormented by the suicide of his wife; the vampish investigative reporter Vivian Rutledge (Jo Haydock); the world-renowned, slightly scatty medium Scarabus (Phil Denison); and the transparently-fraudulent, highly-strung mindreader Cairo (Andrew Yates).
Although the owner of the house fails to appear, having died under mysterious circumstances just hours before, he's represented by Vincent (Daniel Thackeray) and the house has a long-serving butler Grady, played with relish by O'Byrne himself. Or does it?
The real Grady, it turns out, is long dead and Earle is apparently the only one who can see him. Meanwhile, the revelations of witchcraft, madness, torture and the usual paranormal goings-on come thick and fast in this compelling narrative. The twist, when it comes, is rather a good one and just knowing enough not to ruin the spooky atmosphere that has been so well created and maintained - thanks in no little part to Justin Wetherill's ingenious sound design - throughout a spirited and entertaining evening.
Reviewer: Kevin Bourke