Friday, November 8, 2019

Review: 'Who They Were' at the Etcetera Theatre, 7th November 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

As the mercury drops and the nights grow longer, theatre takes a turn for the supernatural. I've just come off the myriad delights of the London Horror Festival, which featured some excellent plays about things that go bump in the night. It seems that even with Halloween receding into the distance this atmosphere is sticking around. Tonight's encounter with the dark side is Luke Culloty's Who They Were.

The 'they' in this equation are Eros and Florence (Lucy Abraham and Adela Rajnović), two immortal vampires meeting each other for the first time in a hundred years. They were once in a passionate relationship, but like the blood in their vampiric veins, it has cooled to an icy stillness. In a relatable twist, even a hundred years after they've broken up Eros still has some Florence's stuff boxed up in the cupboard, and now she's round to pick it up.

The first thing you note when you enter the theatre is that everything is covered in plastic sheeting, American Psycho style. Given that this is a play about vampires, they're sipping on a mysterious crimson liquid and making a toast to 'Brie' (not referring to a cheese), things are primed for the blood to flow.

Culloty has even come up with a neat twist on how Eros 'hunts'. Rather than stalk the streets like her vampire brethren she has set up a suicide hotline. If she cannot talk someone down off the ledge then she summons them to her apartment and consumes them. After all, if they were going to die anyway then what's the harm? 

That's where Joe (Ruby Herrington) comes in. She turns up expecting to be dinner, sitting down on the carpet and curiously enquiring about whether this is going to hurt or not. I've seen a whole bunch of vampire films, TV shows and media and this is a genuinely unique set-up.

But, frustratingly, Who They Were proves to be all fang and no bite. Joe decides she's not suicidal after all and just leaves, with the rest of the play seeing the two vampires coming to terms with their former relationship and find a new emotional equilibrium. 

Now, I'm not some zero attention  span thrill-seeker, but if you've already got the plastic sheeting down and the victim is willing then do us a favour and finish the job! After all, fake blood is both cheap and fun.

Similarly, the core relationship between Eros and Florence isn't given any special qualities due to their immortality. They say they haven't seen each other for a hundred years, but behave like any mortal couple who broke up a while back. Maybe that's the point, but there are ways of showing sympathetic vampires while still making them feel otherworldly - with Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive a great example.

It's not that I had a bad time watching Who They Were, but it feels like there were decisions taken during its production that have inadvertently drained the play of excitement, suspense and.. well, blood. If we're dealing with immortals I'd like to see passionate arguments borne of decades of history rather than tetchy sniping. If the characters lure suicidal people into their flats to eat them - then show us it! There's potential here, but it could be so much more.

Who They Were is at the Etcetera Theatre until 9th November. Tickets here.

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