REVIEW: What the Dolls Saw (Pleasance Theatre) ★★★★★

“Not for people with a fear of dolls…or feminism”, reads one tagline for the comedy thriller What the Dolls Saw which is part of the Pleasance Theatre‘s London Horror Festival which festival runs from 8 – 25 October; unfortunately What the Dolls Saw only played three performances but here’s to hoping it will soon be making its way onto stage again.

Penned by Nic Lamont – who has been featured on BBC3 and BBC Radio 4 – and directed by Lisa Millar, this is the first all-female production from The House of Macabre theatre company. All-female here reads: not only acted, but also written, directed, and produced solely by women.

For the funeral of their father, a renowned Doll-maker, three sisters (and one’s ward) return home to their mother. The sisters are Spunky Christine (Holly Morgan), who is an investigative journalist and runs her own true crime podcast; goodie two shoes Megan (Nic Lamont), a children’s author – who maybe shouldn’t be, given how dark her stories are; and wild child Zara (Sasha Wilson) who has run off to America and has adopted mute Belle (Rebecca O’Brien).

Back home, their rather heinous mother Rose (Rosy Fordham) gives the sister something far from a warm welcome. Big on her Shakespeare, the former child star is less big on showing affection towards her family.
And then there is Aunt Lily…who isn’t anymore, but whose spirit and unexplained disappearance still haunts the family in their every step.

Christine wants to solve her aunt’s mysterious demise for her podcast, and together with her sisters who are eager to escape their mother’s derailed monologues, the three (well, now four – with Belle) dig deep in their father’s past misdoings.

The entire production is deeply atmospheric and even features original music.

The set design is shelves stacked with dolls, a family dinner table (with their father’s golden urn at the head) and a lovely pastel blue dolls house which unfolds to reveal shadow puppetry. The disturbing tale of the shadow puppets is that of Megan’s latest rejected children’s book. This bit of the show is done in collaboration with the award-winning theatre company Knuckle and Joint, with Rebecca O’Brien operating the puppets.

The storytelling of What the Dolls Saw is thrilling, chilling, clever, funny, dark, and poignant. Albeit over the top, the women’s relationships feel genuine, their interactions real. The play is only an hour long, but it’s paced well. The slower beginning beautifully introduces its colourful characters, and the rest is a goosebump provoking thrill-ride. This said I could have easily watched three hours of it. Each of the actresses gives a believable, entertaining and spirited performance. It doesn’t seem fair to single one of them out as each of them did brilliantly but Rosy Fordham’s part is especially delightful.

In the end, What the Dolls Saw goes to prove that a perfect play doesn’t need a man. Not even as the monster.

Reviewed by Lisa Theresa Downey-Dent

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