Friday, October 11, 2019

Review: 'Last Orders: The Haunting of the Old Red Lion' at the Old Red Lion, 10th October 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

The Old Red Lion in Islington is one of my favourite London pubs. It's friendly, has a good selection of beers, nice decor and has a cosy upstairs theatre at which I've seen many plays over the years. I also dig the history of the place: there's a mural in the pub explaining that it was founded in 1415 (though rebuilt in 1899) and that over the years many historical figures of note drank here. It was even featured in a 1736 Hogarth painting!

But a building doesn't get this old without some unpleasantness happening within its walls. Staff members report strange, unexplained noises, objects moving without explanation and there are even ghostly apparitions on the stairs. This is where The Knock Knock Club come in. 

The company recently teamed up with professional paranormal investigators to do a full supernatural audit of the building, spending a night in the building exploring each floor. Tonight they present their results in, Last Orders: The Haunting of the Old Red Lion.

The Knock Knock Club are true believer Reece Connolly, sceptic Christopher Keegan and undecided Caroline Buckley. After a quick poll of who in the audience believes in ghosts (at the London Horror Festival it seems silly to say no) we're off. 

The show is part storytelling, part lecture. So, we open with Connolly delivering a spooky story by candlelight about a terrifying incident that took place in the very room we're sitting in. Brrr. All three performers can spin a fantastic yarn, and the ones we hear tonight are suitably creepy. 

With a set composed simply of a hanging pub sign and frantic red scrawls (blood, knife and so on) on the walls, the show relies on darkness to provide the atmosphere. This works beautifully, especially later in the show when they cover up the green glowing fire escape sign in the corner. I love shows that plunge the audience into pitch darkness, and aside from some brief and dramatic flashes of light, it cranks up the volume of the tales they're telling.

Sadly the paranormal investigation side of the show is less engaging. I'm a sucker for local historical tidbits; so while I knew that Lenin and Stalin once drank at this pub, I didn't know there was a legend about Lenin attempting to hide in the dumb waiter to avoid police. But the thing is, the way the show is structured, I've got no idea if this is true or not.

Last Orders has a real problem here. Obviously as part of the London Horror Festival and a show being put on in the run-up to Halloween it's got to be spooky. If the show's conclusion was that there's actually nothing strange going on in this building at all and that ghosts aren't real, it'd be a big let down. So there's a theatrical incentive to bend the truth or, to put it less kindly, make shit up.

There are parts in the show when they tell you a story about something that happened in this pub, only to admit straight afterwards that it actually didn't happen like that. Full credit to them for honesty, but it means that you're constantly second-guessing whether what you're hearing is actual history, actual recordings from their night in the building or just something to spice up the show. 

I can understand why Last Orders is structured like this: it wants to both inform and entertain. But this is ultimately a piece of horror theatre and I wish they'd just leaned firmly towards the latter. 

Throughout the show we hear tales of mysterious noises from within the building and objects moving on their own - why not simulate this on stage at unexpected times to freak us out a bit? Hell, why not go all Ghostwatch on us and have the show turn into a genuine paranormal event that the audience is caught up in? I dunno, have someone get possessed on stage during the Ouiji board sequence or something.

As it is, Last Orders is too dry to be scary and too loose with the facts to be informative. The Knock Knock Club are all engaging and charismatic stage presences, but even they cannot disguise that the paranormal content of the show is very thin. And if you're going to exaggerate some parts, why not exaggerate all of it? 

Last Orders: The Haunting of the Old Red Lion runs until 26th October. Tickets here.

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