A portmanteau horror for the stage in the style of films such as Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, sounds like the neatest idea ever. But while this collection from some of our most notable horror writers, directed by Sean Hogan, has some thoroughly enjoyable moments, it runs out of steam later on.
Five strangers receive invitations to attend a fancy dress party on a train journey to an unknown destination. Once there, they are requested by a mysterious hostess Doctor Myra Lark (Jenny Runacre) to tell their scariest monster stories.
A thoroughly unlikeable bunch they are too: an arrogant financier and his equally pompous politician wife; a potty-mouthed gossip columnist; an up-his-own-arse rock star, and another guest who spends the whole journey sparko on the floor.
Jamie Birkett is the standout performer in a number of roles: Christopher Fowler’s The Devil’s Children about two people trapped in a lift; Lynda E Rucker’s #Goddess as a backpacker who stumbles across the home of a vampire, and the genuinely spooky Cheeky Boy by Stephen Gallagher, in which she plays a ventriloquist’s dummy — ventriloquists’ dummies are always spooky, aren’t they?
Fine work as well comes from Jonathan Rigby, who along with Billy Clarke, is terrific in the blackly comic Dead Scotsmen by Robert Shearman.
As is often the case, some of the stories work better than others and this production also suffers because of the theatre’s restricted facilities. Being unable to achieve a complete blackout certainly hampers the shock value (I saw you put that blood capsule in your mouth vampire lady) and the scene changes were often laboured, which resulted in a loss of atmosphere and continuity. That said, the first half was never less than thoroughly entertaining. All we needed after the interval was the big reveal about why they were all there and we could go out into the night as happy bunnies.
Erm, no. After the break, things collapse into an unholy mess with Kim Newman’s Frankenstein On Ice, an interminable and totally muddled story of Frankenstein’s monster being reanimated after being found in the melting polar ice pitched into a tale about androids and ruthless corporations. There was probably a “message” in there somewhere about our disregard for the planet, but with references to Milton’s Paradise Lost, it all got too clever for its own good. A confusing and badly scripted (Jenny Runacre just couldn’t cope with the words she had to say) story that had me longing for the lethal injection that one of the scientists was wielding about. It’s quite astonishing how a writer of Newman’s calibre could get it so wrong.
Another ten minutes would have been enough to wind things up, but the disastrous second act frankly ruined what had promised to be a fun evening.
Reviewed by Tony Peters
Playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 19 March 2016