King’s Head Theatre, London – until 26 June 2022
Ghost stories are a much loved theatrical genre – The Woman In Black has been in the West End for over 30 years and shows no signs of moving on – but can be fiendishly difficult to get right: go too horrific and you run the risk of alienating your audience, overdo the melodrama and you end up with inappropriate laughter in the auditorium. Mark Ravenhill’s tense new piece avoids these pitfalls, providing some authentic chills even if it fails to completely satisfy as a piece of supernatural storytelling.
Actually, the storytelling here is skilfully done, seamlessly bleeding real life into fiction as Ravenhill himself gets up before the performance officially begins (or at least before it appears to have begun) to regale us with facts about the King’s Head Theatre. Regular visitors to this venue won’t find this unusual, since every performance here is prefaced by a heartfelt appeal for funds. Ravenhill is interrupted mid sentence by an audience member who has performed as an actor at this theatre in a previous production and is still haunted by a supernatural experience she had during that run.
In all honesty, this conceit would work better if Suzanne Ahmet, in that role, weren’t so obviously acting at the outset. Ravenhill is much more successful at apparently making his lines up on the spot, possibly as a result of having written them himself. That said, Ahmet gets into her stride as the piece draws on, compellingly recalling her brush with a vengeful ghostly presence that feels unsettlingly plausible in the dimly lit, muggy back room of this historical Islington pub. She also interacts winningly with a couple of game audience members, drawing all of us further into the eerie theatrical mire.
Without giving away spoilers, Ravenhill’s text is so bound up with the venue itself that it’s basically a piece of immersive theatre. It even works as a useful, if slightly heavy-handed, advertisement for the venue’s future plans as the King’s Head prepares to move to their new home in an adjacent new Upper Street development (Ravenhill is the co-artistic director).
Ahmet’s haunted Susan accused Ravenhill at one point of being “another white man” trying to control the narrative, which she then wrestles from him. That’s all well and good, but the irony still stands that this piece is still the creation of a white man, albeit an extremely talented one, and one who creates convincing female characters. If the play’s conclusion is a bit of a letdown given the shuddering suspense and carefully brewed atmosphere of what has gone before, that is a frequent weakness of this genre, and one that the aforementioned The Woman In Black only avoids by deviating quite drastically from its original source material.
Jo Underwood’s lighting and Roly Botha’s lighting are flawless however. Botha’s contribution is particularly invaluable, a foreboding soundscape that ratchets up the tension to pleasurably unbearable levels.
This may not be a classic of the ghost story genre, being too tied to the venue and the surrounding area to have serious legs, although future productions could possibly see portions of the script rewritten to reflect alternative locations. It is however a creditable and often gripping attempt to marry contemporary issues with Islington’s somewhat grim past, and an interesting, evocative way to commemorate fifty years of the King’s Head Theatre.