THE HAUNTING OF BLAINE MANOR
Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford, Friday 28th January 2022
This chiller from writer-director Joe O’Byrne covers a lot of familiar territory. A motley assortment of characters assembles in a remote country house. There’s a storm. There’s a séance in the offing – until events get in the way, as debunker of the paranormal Dr Roy Earle pours scorn and bourbon on the outlandish claims made by the likes of Adolphus Scarabus (medium) and the Great Cairo (extra large). Also present is journalist Vivian Rutledge, and Vincent De Lambre, to provide other points of view and to enliven the evening with stories…It has the feel of an old movie. You can quite easily imagine Bob Hope playing the sardonic, wise-cracking American Dr Earle. Tonight with Bob Hope presumably unavailable, we get Peter Slater, who does a bang-up job. It’s through his eyes that we view the other characters. Like him, we don’t take them seriously.
As Vivien, Jo Haydock brings femininity and elegance to an otherwise all-male cast. No shrinking violet, her Vivien asserts her views and adds considerably to the overall atmosphere. Andrew Yates’s Cairo is a larger-than-life, comic characterisation; as Act One goes on, you think there’s more ham and cheese here than in your average toasted sandwich – but, as with all the great ghost stories, things are not necessarily as they seem…
Joe O’Byrne himself appears as Grady, the butler, bringing a gentle humour to proceedings. And there’s more to Grady than meets the eye… James Allen’s wild-haired, theatrical psychic Scarabus is effective, but perhaps a little underused. And as for Vincent De Lambre, well, I could listen to Ed Barry’s velvet voice reading a telephone directory.
Much use is made of silences broken by sudden loud noises. A lot of information is presented, about the house, about the characters’ pasts, but O’Grady, directing, prevents things from becoming too static or bogged down by exposition. One of the most difficult things to achieve on stage is to frighten the audience. This piece has some highly atmospheric moments and a few good jumps.
What begins as a pastiche of creaky old movies really takes off in Act Two. The characters up the hokey talk, banging on about demons and ‘alternative parallel dimensions’ (whatever they are) and the lighting and sound effects, used sparingly in Act One, are really brought on board… But again, things aren’t necessarily as they seem. It all culminates in a clever denouement I don’t see coming, even though all the clues are laid out for us throughout. Clever stuff.