A strong literary tradition in Britain at this time of year is the telling of a ghost story – cf Dickens’ A Christmas Carol of which there seem to have been (literally) a non-stop stream. One of the recognised masters of the genre is M.R. James and a story of his has been adapted by the Original Theatre Company as The Haunting Of Alice Bowles. When I discovered that the original was called The Experiment: A New Year’s Eve Ghost Story it seemed more than appropriate to be viewing this as the old year slid into the new.
James’ original is a very brief tale having first appeared in a newspaper on New Year’s Eve 1931 and so adaptor Philip Franks has done a fine job in expanding the narrative. In point of fact there are two parallel stories, one set in 1918 and the other in 2020. These two dates are connected by the circumstance of a virus (Spanish Flu/Covid-19) wreaking havoc in their respective communities which, if nothing else, tends to suggest that history likes to repeat itself.
In the modern era we see cash strapped vlogger Matt and long suffering girlfriend Caitlin trying to make money out of the former’s obsession with things that go bump in the night. They uncover a grave at dead of night… and that’s never going to be a good thing. The grave turns out to be of one Francis Bowles who died in the midst of the pandemic back in 1918. And so, the second strand kicks in as we watch his widow Alice and her stepson Joseph also desperately searching for money. In a desperate bid to find a hidden cache they try to revive the corpse… and that’s never going to be a good thing either. In their respective time frames both couples start to uncover more than they bargained for and there are discoveries of satanism, sexual abuse and murder.
The Original Theatre Company has been specialising this year (sorry, last year) with actors using green screen technology at home and then binding the resultant footage into a coherent whole as something that isn’t quite a theatrical play and isn’t quite a film. Through this method they have already taken us to the trenches of the First World War (Birdsong) and even outer space (Apollo 13: The Dark Side Of The Moon) and given us a couple of fascinating pieces of drama into the bargain but, of course, they, and this production, cannot be classified as pure theatre.
Indeed, they exist in a halfway state which, ironically, James refers to in this particular story as “the middle soul” – a kind of limbo existence. Does the categorisation matter? Probably not. As the recent online version of What A Carve Up! has more than amply demonstrated mixing media can produce some stunning results and OTC have started to show themselves as pioneers in the field.
By another ironic quirk Tamzin Outhwaite is one of the lead names in both productions and her television background (thus mixing in a third strand of performance media) means that she is highly effective in her portrayals. She definitely commands here as the ashen faced and increasingly desperate Alice of the title who has suffered at the hands of her dead husband and wants to get hold of his hidden fortune so that she can start again. She wants to take stepson Joseph with her especially when it is revealed that he was the victim of abuse at the hands of his father and a circle of his friends.
Jack Archer plays Joseph as an initially insipid young man but with hidden depths. Is he complicit with his stepmother or merely dragged along by circumstance? Max Bowden and Alexandra Guelff play the modern day couple with spirit but are ultimately less interesting and fully rounded as characters. Stephen Boxer is the standard Jamesian figure of the academic/cleric trying to sort out the mystery in 1918 and plays the role with an understated befuddlement at the seamier side of life.
However, it is the modern parallels which gives this otherwise workaday ghost story its depth and resonance and Franks and OTC are to be congratulated for the equivalences which they have drawn out. Because, alas, abuse still exists and the dark side of the soul remains a constant in human nature. And as we have recently been discovering pandemics persist. The flu virus of 1918/19 has been reckoned to be the most deadly outbreak since the Black Death and, in many respects, it never really went away (it more or less retreated to become the seasonal flu of modern times). With at least two vaccines in production and a greater scientific understanding of how these things work maybe 2021 will turn out to have a brighter side. In the meantime, better huddle up on the sofa and watch The Haunting Of Alice Bowles instead.