Hampstead Theatre Winter 2009-2010
It may be the Dickens effect, but for some reason ghost stories seem appropriate for Christmas, and Michael Punter has written a ghostly tale set in December 1875 that may not actually scare the heck out of you, but does offer a pleasurable antidote to possible excesses of holiday cheer elsewhere.
Punter's opening owes something to The Woman in Black, as one man describes and acts out a ghostly encounter to another.
In this case a stuffy Englishman is forced to resort to an American spiritualist to explain the experience he had - strange noises, half-seen apparitions, etc. - in, of course, an isolated country house.
That the American is not only a hard-drinking Southerner but a bit of a charlatan only adds colour to the tale, especially when a faked seance raises a real ghost.
From that point on, though there are plenty of surprises and shocks, the basic outline is predictable, as the living - who also include a housekeeper with secrets and a maid with mystic gifts - attempt to identify and then assuage the pains of the dead.
Punter's plot depends a little too much on withholding great quantities of backstory and other information from us, in order to create mystery, and then great swaths of delayed exposition and explanation that one character chose not to divulge earlier.
But, helped along by some stylish performances, an appropriately atmospheric set by Paul Farnsworth, and some effective bits of stage magic by illusionists Ben Hart and Darren Lang, it does generate and sustain the desired spooky tone..
Director Anthony Clark understands that a play like this must walk the thin line between absolute seriousness and camp self-parody, and he has guided his cast to performances that are just over-the-top enough to keep one foot in believability.
Coming to the production late (so late that the previous actor's photos are all over the posters and programme), Tom Goodman-Hill plays the haunted man with absolute confidence and authority, creating a character who is more than a little ridiculous - he's an anti-Darwin campaigner a bit stymied by the enigma of Adam's belly button - but still sympathetic.
Julian Rhind-Tutt's Southerner escapes caricature by being given not only a dark past but an attractively ironic distance from his own profession, so that his sceptical client sometimes seems to have more faith in him than he does himself.
Pamela Miles is appropriately enigmatic as the housekeeper, Vinette Robinson appropriately lovely as the damsel-inevitably-in-distress.
Ultimately the over-reliance on gratuitous mystification and delayed explanation keeps the play from being thoroughly satisfying as a ghost story, but it is a fun couple of hours as you're watching it.
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