“The creative elements of the show keep us spellbound, although the writing does come into its own as the fear factor increases”
It was a dark and stormy night…
The night in question is an indeterminate, though definitely stormy, one in 2017. John Blondel (Will Barton), a local teacher and historian, is preparing for a talk with a young author and paranormal expert as part of a weekly Vlog he is broadcasting for the island’s Historical Society. As part of his groundwork, he is researching the great storm of 1987; listening to soundbites from the news reports and the now famous failure of the Met Office to foresee the ill wind blowing. The significance of the comparatively light-hearted opening will become clear as the evening progresses, and darkens.
It is a well-known fact that part of the human condition is programmed to enjoy being scared – or rather ‘safely scared’. The proliferation of ghost stories in literature, film and stage bear witness to that. The effect is heightened when the source material is based on true events, as is James Milton’s and Paul Morrissey’s “When Darkness Falls”. We are promised five tales gleaned from Guernsey’s folklore and paranormal history. John Blondel is a self-confessed sceptic and unbeliever and regards the forthcoming interview with a foreboding flippancy and is initially more concerned with his supply of coffee and biscuits and the lack of punctuality of his guest. Will Barton captures the untidy mind of the character with an assured realism, suggesting that his pragmatism is not as solid as he would like to make out. More sinister is Alex Phelps’ unnamed speaker who coolly challenges his host’s disbelief.
The haunting tales the speaker relates bridge five centuries, covering witch hunts, burning, murder, ghoulish canines, revenge, piracy, the Nazi occupation; among others. There is a connecting thread but initially it struggles to snare the audience. Instead, the piece really picks up when the ghost story leaves the realms of anecdote and starts to filter into the action unfolding before us, and we realise that the two characters are existing within their own horror story. The script works best when it strays away from the ghost story and speculates on the human condition that gives rise to these stories. A brief discussion on mourning and melancholia, for instance, or the notion that history is not fact but perceived; therefore, everything is possible in our perception. Even ghosts.
The fantasy is sharpened by Daniel Higgott’s sound design and Bethany Gupwell’s lighting that create more of the magic than the dialogue – but all too sporadic to keep the hairs on our necks standing for long. John Bulleid’s magic and illusion design works wonders in tandem with Justin Williams’ beautifully crafted set that cleverly conjures up the state of John’s mind as well as the cluttered chaos that impels us to seek a supernatural cause beyond a crumbling rational.
The creative elements of the show keep us spellbound, although the writing does come into its own as the fear factor increases. We were promised five ghost stories – but in truth we have four. The fifth is the reality that delivers the stinging twist in the tale, and that is what ultimately bristles the hairs on our necks more than anything that goes bump in the night.
“The lightness in the whole production betrays the skilful way in which the story is told and the issues explored”
Austerity Britain has a lot to answer for with its meaningless and mean-spirited social re-engineering responsible for many devastating things in contemporary society, not least the tearing apart of communities.
Many writers have been inspired by the crisis yet in Conor Hunt’s powerful new play “Who Cares” politics take a back seat to the more important reality of friendship winning through against all odds.
Last year Anna Jordan’s “We Anchor in Hope” showed how the closure of local pubs to make way for supermarket express stores, classy restaurants and luxury flats was ripping the heart out of community life.
In “Who Cares” the starting point is the same, as friendly Manchester local The Crown faces closure. But the pub is a sanctuary for a young disabled man, the only place he feels safe after being forced to move with his mum from their Camden flat because the council hadn’t the time to fix a broken lift.
Instead of descending into the sort of sentimentality beloved of TV soaps, a play which could so easily have focussed on a person’s disability stands out for concentrating on the value of true friendship, fighting against the odds and breaking away from self-imposed limitations.
The two characters are so well-developed over the course of an hour that this genuinely feels like a promising pilot for a TV sitcom. You can engage and empathise with them from the start and we want to know more about their lives and futures.
Reece Pantry’s Jamie suffers from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a form of the long-term degenerative condition Muscular Dystrophy. Pantry, who has MD himself, quickly avoids any attempt to milk sympathy, believably portraying the sense of isolation and desperate need to save a pub where he feels accepted for who he is. It is no surprise Muscular Dystrophy UK has been so supportive of the production.
Kyle Rowe has the confident air of a young Christopher Eccleston in the role of pub landlord Daniel. Beneath the bluff Northern exterior lies a tender sincerity and the relationship between the two men is beautifully painted, from Dan helping Jamie fill out important forms to the pair singing Sonny and Cher at a karaoke.
There is an hilarious and touching scene in which Dan finds a Snow White outfit and wears it knowing how ridiculous he looks just to help his friend gain confidence in chatting up girls. The sight of Rowe in the costume will be one of the lasting images from this year’s VAULT Festival.
Emma-Louise Howell directs with a touch that is firm enough to move the plot along, yet with a delicacy that allows the two characters to develop naturally. The lightness in the whole production betrays the skilful way in which the story is told and the issues explored.
The set (Justin Williams) is an extraordinary recreation of a pub interior, at the start littered with the debris of a hen party the night before. Later on comedian Bradley Walsh even manages to make a sort of cameo appearance. It is a good example to others of using decent set and props fully rather than leaving absolutely everything to the imagination. Lighting (Joseph Ed Thomas) and sound (Jack Ridley) also do much to evoke the various moods.
It is refreshing to see such mature writing from someone up and coming and Hunt is clearly going to be a name to watch. Despite its warm heart “Who Cares” also has the capacity to provoke and dares to ask hard-hitting questions in a battered Britain.