‘Clever as well as disarming’: FRIGHTENERS – Spontaneous Productions Theatre Company (Online review)

In Online shows, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by John ChapmanLeave a Comment

Having had a day to recover (!), I headed back for the second tranche of Frighteners from the Spontaneous Productions Theatre Company, highlighted as part of Scenesaver’s Fright Night programme for Halloween. Apparently, the texts were developed as part of an advanced script writer’s class run by the company. The same four actors as in the previous playlets (Annie Aldington, Jimand Allotey, William Hastings and Hjalmar Norden) continue in a variety of roles and the already noted shadow play continues to be used cleverly as well as disarmingly. All the plays are directed by Jonathan Kaufman.

Shall I Be Mother? by Darren Bird is more black comedy than horror though there are some nasty elements which means the playlet fits into both genres. The play starts with Emily and Mrs Dodds having a genteel tea party in Edwardian times. True, Emily is reading Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven out loud while her hostess embroiders which should give us a bit of a clue that all is not as rosy as it seems. It turns out that Emily has been at the tea party for rather longer than she would like and cannot, in fact, leave and so events take a sinister twist. While Mrs Dodds is out of the room, Emily suddenly produces a mobile phone which confirms our misgivings, and a battle of wits ensues (though it seems fair to say that at least one of the participants has lost hers). There is also the rather strange business of Mr Dodds…

The Signalman is the lengthiest of the seven pieces (though still comes in at under 20 minutes) and is adapted by Ida Tidy from the well-known short story by Charles Dickens. We are in traditional Victorian ghost story territory here with an atmosphere of gloom and a pervading sense of the inexplicable hanging over the storyline. Following a real train accident in which Dickens himself had been involved there are obviously some demons being worked out in the story of a mysterious figure that appears on the railway tracks. Either this is a ghost of a previous incident or a spirit forewarning of danger to come and the central figure can barely explain to his visitor the horror he feels. There is a creeping sense of dread which is brought out by the two actors in this piece and though there are no sudden shocks as might be found in a more modern piece it is probably the most successful in creating an atmosphere.

The Puppet Master by Lucy Kaufman is the final of the seven pieces. It is short, sweet and dialogueless which sets it slightly apart from the preceding plays. Basically, it’s a tale of the toys’ rebellion as they turn on the puppet master and force him to perform for them. There’s some nicely choreographed movement again and the whole thing is played out to the accompaniment of one of those creepy musical box scores so beloved of horror film makers. I don’t know whether it is was a deliberate attempt to be political but the ventriloquist’s dummy with its shock of blond hair bore a startling resemblance to Boris Johnson – if it was, it was inspired….and if it wasn’t, then it was still inspired. It’s just a pity that the puppet master didn’t bear more of a resemblance to Dominic Cummings!

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John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.
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John Chapman on RssJohn Chapman on Twitter
John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.

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