Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: 'Fear in the Dark' at Abney Park Cemetery, 22nd October 2016

Nestled right in the firmly gentrified heart of Stoke Newington, Abney Park Cemetery is hemmed in on all sides by concept restaurants and cocktail bars. Yet just a couple of steps beyond its imposing wrought iron gates and you're somewhere else. Somewhere that nature has reclaimed. Somewhere the Victorian dead live. Somewhere ivy-clad stone angels loom from the thicket. Somewhere that light seems fearful to shine...

So, a pretty damn good place to stage a spooky Halloween play. Pandemonium Productions know this place well, having staged a couple of plays here, most successfully last summer's excellent Alice in Wonderland. That was a surreal summer treat, the sunset shimmering through gravestones upon in which the Cheshire Cat grinned.

Fear in the Dark is a different kettle of fish. The cemetery, difficult to navigate at the best of times, becomes chaos at night. Lit only by oil lanterns the performers march down paths where thorns threaten to ensnare your ankles. Disorientation beckons, the bustling city suddenly very, very far away. Worse, hidden behind the graves lie hissing monsters and distorted freaks, all ready to lunge out at any unsuspecting visitor.

Pandemonium exploit this in their horror mashup of bits of Poe and Lovecraft. It all kicks off with a panicked man lurching from the darkness and trying to escape the park, informing us that he's searching for his lost 'Sarah'. Before we know it we're launched down a winding trail on which we find maniacal doctors, twisted abominations, unholy cultists and people that just. won't. die.

I don't want to spoil too, but it's pretty classically spine-tingling stuff boosted by the fantastic location and oil-lit ambience. Nell Hardy, my highlight in Alice in Abney, also excels here. She's a brilliantly bendy performer, managing the single most unnerving moment in the entire evening when she stretches backwards until her head is practically touching the floor. It just looks plain wrong, as if her skeleton is being stretched from within by otherworldly forces from beyond the hell dimension.

Unfortunately, despite Hardy (and an excellent Steve Fitzgerald), Fear in the Dark doesn't quite work. The main problem is that the narrative never gels, feeling more like a collection of loosely connected vignettes than a proper story. Simply put, it's difficult to follow what's going on. Throughout I was waiting for the moment where the pieces would finally make sense. I was still waiting when I found myself being ushered out of the cemetery, apparently having not realised that the climax was actually the climax.

I get that a good horror story relies on the audience's imagination filling in a lot of the blanks, but there are an awful lot of blanks in Fear in the Dark. Prime amongst them is that the theoretical main character is often relegated to silently observing the drama and only occasionally intervenes. By contrast, Alice in Abney used its Alice character as a guide for the audience and the focus of every scene. 

Also not helping is the size of the audience. Being alone in the dark woods is terrifying. With just a couple of people is scary. With about 40 people, you feel safety in numbers. Maybe this kind of thing can't be helped, but perhaps splitting the audience in two, as they did in previous productions, would have helped create the sense of isolation and danger.

I enjoyed the evening, but most of that enjoyment came from the simple atmospheric pleasure of being in Abney Park Cemetery at night. It's not that Fear in the Dark is badly performed or lacks atmosphere, but it's hamstrung by loose plotting and characterisation. Nevertheless it's going to stick in the memory - though it's the marching through the darkened graves that'll stay with me longer than the iffy drama.


Fear in the Dark is at Abney Park Cemetery until 31 October. Tickets here. 

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