Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th January 2020
Scary shows are rarely done live, and even more rarely, done successfully. You think of The Woman in Black which continues to put the willies up audiences in the West End decades after it opened – and that’s about it. Until the advent of this production at the Lyric Hammersmith, which went on to have a decent run and is now embarking on its first national tour. Written by Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, this is an anthology of tales, curated by Professor Goodman (an excellent Joshua Higgott), who in a kind of lecture or TED talk, seeks to debunk the supernatural. Because there’s a rational explanation for everything. Isn’t there?
I am under strict instruction not to reveal any of the show’s secrets so I will skate over the subject matter by saying only this. Each story is completely different and is narrated by a different character, ranging from Paul Hawkyard’s down-to-earth Tony Matthews, to Gus Gordon’s more agitated Simon Rifkind, and to Richard Sutton’s boorish, braggart, Mike Priddle.
What I will tell you is you are in for ninety minutes of suspense, shocks and scares. I saw the original production at the Lyric; there are more laughs than I remember, some of them the nervous kind, but the script is richly laced with humour, calculated to relieve the tension. It’s beautifully written; the stories unfold in such a way that they play on your imagination, and the staging of each one is exquisite. Everyday activities take on an aspect of suspense. The ordinary is a gateway to the extraordinary…
Technically the show is a marvel of darkness (James Farncombe’s lighting design excels in what it doesn’t reveal as much as what it illuminates) with an unsettling sound design by Nick Manning. There are jump-scares, sudden loud noises, eerie silences… every trope you might expect, and an almost relentless sense of dread. You spend a lot of the time dreading what might happen and when things happen, wondering how they do it. Everything is achieved with impeccable timing and it works brilliantly.
Even on second viewing, the show loses none of its power to grip, to thrill and to entertain. It’s a funfair ride, a visceral and intellectual experience, addressing dark aspects of the human psyche. It’s a pleasure to be manipulated in this way. The show is a testament to the power and unique properties of live theatre. You won’t get frissons like this by watching the movie version on your phone.