“You’re guaranteed to feel sickened and hysterically entertained at the same time.”
Director Mathew Parker clearly has a penchant for tales that are dark and disturbing. Having had previous success with other Hope Theatre in-house productions, Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, The Lesson and Lovesong of The Electric Bear, they all have a similar theme of sinister unsettlement to them. Parker undisputedly has a knack for the genre of black comedy/thriller and brings his expertise to this latest show. The House of Yes is deliciously uncomfortable yet devilishly funny. A rare outing of Wendy Macleod’s under-the-radar 90’s hit play and film, this is a thrilling revival, losing none of its shock value or humour.
It’s Thanksgiving in Washington D.C. A hurricane is sweeping through the capital, but it’s not just the weather that’s blowing up a storm. The Pascal family, of upper-class, WASP-ish pedigree, who live in a time warp since the Kennedy assassination, are feverishly awaiting the arrival of the prodigal son, Marty (Fergus Leathem). None is as excited for his return as his unstable twin sister Jackie-O (Colette Eaton). However the presence of Marty’s fiancee, Lesly (Kaya Bucholc), there to meet the family, comes as somewhat of a surprise. The obsessive Jackie is not best pleased, younger brother Anthony (Bart Lambert) is infatuated, and Mother Pascal (Gill King) is judging from the shadows as she watches on. In a series of twisted events and manipulations, the night soon becomes a Thanksgiving no one will forget.
The cast, on a whole, do a marvellous job at giving heightened performances that never fall into being camp and melodramatic, which could so easily occur with Macleod’s writing. Eaton as Jackie-O teases you with her fragility, never knowing when she might do something drastic, whilst Lambert’s oddball physicality and leering looks as Anthony are decidedly creepy and comical all-in-one.
The studio space is decked out by designer Rachael Ryan with gold drapes, and gilded frames, to give a nod to the cavernous, elaborate home of the Pascals, yet uses the intimate environment of the theatre, full of shadowy little corners, to heighten the gothic, haunted house aesthetic.
With an Absurdist veneer and Noël Coward-like sensibility, The House of Yes gives an unconventional take on theatrical commonalities, creating its own Frankenstein mish-mash of genres. The subtext hints to deeper messages on the themes of family politics, and the American class system, but never lets this interfere with the stylised exterior. Instead it is just tantalisingly bubbling under the surface. Regardless of being nearly 30 years old, this play still feels rather daring, even if not so relevant to today. You’re guaranteed to feel sickened and hysterically entertained at the same time.
“an interesting and atmospheric production with many thought-provoking moments”
It is hard to know what to make of Call Me Fury at first. The set (David Spence) emanates aspects of folk horror, with bright autumn leaves scattered against straw and an ominous-looking cross – a palette that works well against the performers’ stark pilgrim black (costumes by Helen Stewart). But when the cast snap into action with snippets of wry and ironic commentary, it becomes clear that something different is at work in this production. What emerges over the play’s 75 minute running time is an anthology-style study of witchcraft, which eventually spills over into a piece seeking to tackle the entrenched lies and elusive truths of women’s history.
The main narrative thread that binds the show together is the well-worn story of the Salem witch trials, carried out with much meta-referential criticism of Arthur Miller’s iconic version of the tale in The Crucible. All of the cast (Mairi Hawthorn, Gracie Lai, Olivia Kennett and Sasha Wilson) take on the familiar roles from history: Abigail – the young girl who cries ‘witch’; Samuel Parris – the quick-to-condemn preacher; Tituba – the slave so easily cast as a villain; and Sarah Goode – the poor and despised woman who first faces the accusatory finger, as well as many others. The writing (Sasha Wilson) adds new depth to the characters of Salem through monologues that speak to the power of past trauma and the alienating nature of fear.
However, apart from these few monologues, for the most part the cast play out the action of the trials and their consequences while jumping quickly between being participant and commentator, stopping suddenly to narrate historical backstory and offer their own conclusions and jokes. It is sometimes these parts that feel the least effective element of the whole ensemble – summoning up the over-exaggerated melodrama of the original legend only to pull it apart in asides. It is when the performers branch out into discussions of witchcraft more generally that the dialogue delivers up moments of insight.
Alongside the Salem witch trials, the audience is treated to brief vignettes that examine the fate of other witches through time – spanning from the ancient past to eerily close to the present. The staging is used the most cleverly in these quick scenes; slick body movements and vivid red cloth convey the Gothic pathos of these tales well. Folk songs also punctuate the drama, and these give the performers more time to shine. They keep the mood of the piece anchored when elsewhere the tone so often shifts, and bring a delightfully haunting magic to the stage.
The direction (a collaboration with Hannah Hauer-King) allows the cast a lot of movement so that nothing feels static and the audience is always engaged, but there are moments where some pauses or drawn-out moments of drama might be welcome, in order to let some of the script’s heavy subject matter penetrate more deeply. The lighting (Holly Ellis) is effective, but there are some hints at the start as to how it could have been used more throughout the show.
Altogether, a combination of compelling performances from the cast and a bold mixture of different ideas explored in the writing make Call Me Fury an interesting and atmospheric production with many thought-provoking moments.