Halloween shivers: Ghost Stories from M.R. James, Simon Michael-Morgan

The Suffolk coast, though dotted with pastel-painted beach huts and gracious Edwardian esplanades, can also be unnervingly bleak – and eerie. So many East Anglian villages have slipped under the waves of the ever-encroaching North Sea, and many tell tales of ghostly church bells which toll beneath the tide, or once-proud manor houses now buried in sand and silt: the sea gnaws daily at the land, a mysterious, malevolent presence, especially in rough weather. M.R. James, who grew up in Great Livermere, set several of his iconic ghost stories in Suffolk, and Simon Michael-Morgan has chosen two to adapt for Strange Fascination Theatre: both have a coastal setting, and when our unsuspecting visitors first arrive in each mythical village, they feel refreshed and revitalised by the beauty of their seaside surroundings. However, the beautiful gives way to the bloodcurdling as horror creeps steadily closer, building each time in true Jamesian fashion from mundane beginnings to a frightening finale. Michael-Morgan slightly adjusts the original viewpoint of each story to produce two pieces of direct and compelling drama, which he also directs. With simple split staging (a couple of chairs on one side, a rumpled bed or a tombstone on the other), Daisy Plackett’s design uses light to highlight alternative playing spaces, to indicate day and night, wakefulness or dreams; characters wear simple 1920s costumes and props are kept to a minimum.

Oh, whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad is the story of Professor Parkins, who comes to Burnstow (Felixstowe) on the East Anglian coast for a break from his studies at Oxford, only to find himself being pestered by day by an over-familiar, neurotic stranger “with the forgettable name”, and by night by increasingly unnerving dreams – which soon begin to seep into his waking life, much to his horror. Simon Michael-Morgan is superbly intense as Parkins, a rationalist atheist passionately committed to his own research, who sees belief in the supernatural as the lowest of intellectual insults, and is as appalled as he is horror-struck by the apparitions he finds it increasingly hard to ignore after visiting a ruined priory nearby.  As his forgettable companion, a keen golfer with a sad secret, James Ducker gives us a hand-wringing, desperately friendly failure of a man; but it is the immaculate dramatic control of Michael-Morgan as Parkin which holds our attention effortlessly from first to last, as his character becomes ever more disorientated. “A man who knows truth is a peaceful one,” muses Parkin sanctimoniously early on, as he proudly rejects the idea of ghosts; but this new truth of haunting, intruding on his self-assurance, makes Parkin’s life anything but peaceful.

The terror temperature rises (or should that be freezes?) significantly in the second half, A warning to the curious, which sees young Abigail Paxton (Daisy Plackett) arrive in the Suffolk village of Seaburgh (Aldeburgh) to pursue an archaeological quest begun by her late father, the star of M.R. James’s original story. Abigail finds herself discouraged on all sides: first, by the disapproval of her unseen aunt, secondly by gentle objections from the jolly, rather brittle Reverend Long (James Ducker), and finally by rough fury from the surly Boots of the inn (a brilliantly grumpy Simon Michael-Morgan). Tragically, it is the Boots’ vehemence which angers Abigail sufficiently to send her off immediately in search of the fatal treasure: the results are truly petrifying.

Daisy Plackett plays Abigail with poise and power, utterly convincing as a bright young idealist, and thoroughly unnerving as neurotic hysteria begins to bite. Though Plackett and Ducker’s portrayals can both waver at times, the consistent power of Michael-Morgan’s contributions ultimately keeps the evening dramatically centred. Although I handled the first piece with amused composure, feeling interested, and delighted and pleasantly scared, the second piece was so genuinely terrifying that I found myself still quivering as I drove myself home.

Presented by Strange Fascination Theatre

Reviewed at The Fisher Theatre, Bungay on 28 October 2017

Rating: Three

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