Saturday, October 19, 2019

Review: 'Anthology' at The Pleasance, 18th October 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

Spend too long thinking about memory and you'll go crazy. Your past experiences are the foundation of 'you' - all the places you've been, the choices you made and the interactions you had. 

But while we have only the faintest idea of how memory works on a neurological level - we know for certain that it's unreliable. You can quite easily be coached into creating false memories and the mind is eager to edit out unpleasantness it would rather not have to deal with. Then there are the many medical conditions that can dramatically affect your memories. Hell, falling off your bike and bonking your head in just the right way can irrevocably change who you are.

Suddenly the foundation on which 'you' stand feels unstable...

This is the existential horror fuelling Hermetic Arts' Anthology, an hour-long show comprising three short stories, written and directed by Chris Linc√© and performed by Carrie Thompson (who, for the sake of full disclosure, I know quite well). I had high hopes for the show, having adored their previous shows Unburied and April.

First up is 'Special Sounds', in which we see a typist trapped in a time loop by a sinister tape machine. Next is Wholesale, a Philip K. Dick inspired marketing spiel in which a Silicon Valley wunderkind demonstrates sinister memory-editing technology. Finally, there's The Empty Clock, about a relationship apparently built entirely around forming precious memories with a sinister twist in the tail.

All three explore our interactions with and perceptions of memory. There's the unsettling inertia that comes from watching your life drip away, day by day, in menial drudgery. It's the kind of fear that sees you begin a job as 'the new kid' with big ideas. You blink and look up to find a hollow-eyed, grey-haired reflection in your computer monitor and realise that this is it for you. 

It digs deep into the disturbing feeling that comes from piecing through your most treasured memories and realising that reality may differ from your recollections. Was your childhood really a long golden afternoon or was there something awful bristling just under the skin? How much have you been prodded and cajoled into remembering things a certain way: was that your life or the Disney adaptation of it? 

Finally, it touches on the way we intentionally curate our experiences for the future, like a squirrel carefully collecting acorns for the winter. Why do we obsessively catalogue our happiness in photographs and videos: is it to give us something to jog our memories or an attempt to prove to ourselves that we're achieving the happiness we goddamn deserve?

All this is communicated through concise and vivid writing that's honestly a little nauseating in how casually good it is. Linc√© has an iron grip on pacing and tone, gradually dialling up the tension in each story as we understand what's really happening. This is best demonstrated in Wholesale, where you generally figure out what's about to happen a few seconds before it does. This is rewarding storytelling: respecting the audience's intelligence, invisibly delivering exposition and easily holding everyone's attention. You can hear a pin drop at some of the tenser moments.

Anthology would be good if it were simply a script, but Thompson's delivery elevates it to true excellence. One mark of confident horror is not being afraid to throw a few jokes into the mix, and Thompson makes being funny, entertaining and personable look effortless. Her mime skills during the first story create a complete character simply through body language and facial expressions. Then there's the ability to turn on a dime, moving from chirpy sales pitch to deep creepiness like flicking on and off a light switch.

On top of all that, Anthology is also a deeply impressive bit of stagecraft. Obvious care and attention has been paid to each individual soundscape, as well as a carefully choreographed lighting design that's executed with pinpoint accuracy. On paper Anthology might sound like a simple show: one performer telling three short stories. In practice, it's polished to the point that its simplicity feels weaponised. You cannot look away and there is nowhere to hide

Beyond all that, there's the simple fact that Anthology is genuinely scary. Despite having reviewed a bunch of stuff at the London Horror Festival over the years, most 'horror' plays present their scary elements with a nod and a wink. That's probably because scaring an audience is hard and sincerely trying and failing makes you look silly. But Anthology's full-throated existential horror gives you the chills in a way someone jumping out and yelling 'boo' never could.

Anthology promise "an evening to remember". It is. 

Anthology is next at the Brighton Horrorfest on 26th October. Tickets here.

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