Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: 'A Haunting' at Vault Festival, 16th February 2017

A Haunting by David James
My Rating: 4 Stars

The disembodied voice can be a hugely effective theatrical device. Booming from speakers and reverberating around the walls, it leaves you feeling disorientated and paranoid. We can't help but play detective, trying to deduce things about the voice's owner, assembling a mental picture of what we expect to see.

Nathan Lucky-Wood's A Haunting exploits this to the fullest. This is a contemporary drama (equal parts horror and pitch-black comedy) that shows that boundaries between our anonymous online lives and our flesh n' blood interactions aren't quite as set in stone as you might imagine. 

The centre of the story is awkward teenager Mark (Roly Botha). He's a pretty typical 15 year old - perpetually illuminated by the pale light of a laptop screen, spending his nights blowing away terrorists in Counter-Strike, watching gross-out videos and gently exploring his sexuality. He casually wonders whether he might be gay, but doesn't seem particularly bothered one way or the other, just impatient to know for sure.

Giving him an education is a reedy, nasal and manipulative voice. This stranger (Jake Curran) grooms Mark, peppering him with compliments designed to isolate him from his peers ("you're so much more mature than those kids" etc). The two even engage in some bizarre Skype audio roleplay, in which Mark asks the stranger if they could pretend they're naughty lesbian schoolgirls undressing one another.

Notably absent is Mark's mother Anna (Izabella Urbanowicz), an advertising executive whose parenting style seems to consist of parking her son in front of the internet and spending her evenings socialising with friends. It's not that she's a bad person (or even a bad mother) but, perhaps fatefully, for the moment she has decided to prioritise herself.

What follows is a tense and scary narrative with flashes of mordant humour. We learn more about the mysterious stranger, more about the storied past of Marks' Mum and a lot of long-buried drama bubbles to the surface.

It makes for a damn fine play - eschewing complex stagecraft in favour confident writing and performances. Lucky-Wood is particularly excellent at subtly shifting the balance of power in a conversation, particularly in the scenes in which both Mark and the online stranger gently jockey for dominance in the conversation. It's fascinating how Mark refuses to become a victim in all this - like any teenager he's after a degree of autonomy - and if it involves doing sexual favours for creepy weirdoes at least it's his decision to do so.

There's also a brilliant cranking up of tension right up until the final minutes, the play gradually doling out revelations that kept me on the edge of my seat (though given the butt-numbing wooden benches in the Vault this isn't too difficult). It's a little sad how refreshing it was for me to see genuinely smart writing that doesn't resort to gimmickry or pretension - just a skilful and efficient storytelling.

It's helped by a strong cast. I always enjoy Jake Curran in whatever he's in - I always like a actor that sweats a bit, plus few people convey wirily twisted intelligence better than he does. Much of the show turns on his vocal performance, which is carefully pitched between ominous and friendly, wheedling away with skin-crawling obsequiousness. Also excellent is Izabella Urbanowicz, who gives whatever she's in some serious welly. Anna isn't the most demented role I've seen Urbanowicz play, but she approaches her with an effectively steely resolve. Roly Botha, who I've not seen before, also impresses - summing up much of his performance with an evocative curl of his lip.

It's probably the best thing I've seen at Vault Festival thus far and an easy recommendation. Go check it out!

A Haunting is at Vault Festival until 19 February. Tickets here.

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