Antwerp Mansion, Manchester; Monday 22nd October, 2018
“The fell doesn’t take too kindly to strangers” – a stern and chilling warning issued by Mr Jacob Beckett, chief suspect in a disturbing and sinister case that drags a police officer to the wind-swept grandeur of the Lake District in pursuit of a missing eleven-year-old child.
Fell is the spine-tingling debut production by Obscura Theatre, a Manchester-based company who have made it their mission to explore tales of the strange and unusual. And this is a show that is definitely both of those things, in a rather pleasing, refreshing and very welcoming kind of way.
The choice of performance venue is an inspired one. Antwerp Mansion is an abandoned Gothic monstrosity which lies in it’s own desolate and bleak isolation just a few steps from the bright lights and otherwise never-ending hustle and bustle that is Manchester’s infamous Curry Mile.
Originally built in 1840 as a private residence for the super-rich industrialists of the Victorian age, nearly two centuries later neglect and abandonment have seen it fall into a state of sorry disrepair. The result is that, on a dark and cold October night, what should have been a simple trip to find a new theatre venue ended up becoming a terrifying journey into physical darkness and spiritual uncertainty. Think of the abandoned house in The Blair Witch Project, but just a lot bigger, darker, and a lot more real.
But it all added to the atmosphere, which got even better when the audience – who were initially caged in the bar / dungeon downstairs – were eventually invited to ascend a haunted, candle-lit staircase to the ghostly ballroom where the performance was to take place. And even the introductory announcement was pleasingly and reassuringly sinister – aside from the usual request to turn mobile phones off there came a charmingly politely-put request to anyone who might be offended by horror theatre to just get the fuck out of here right now.
Build-up aside, once the performance began it definitely lived up to the pre-fight hype. Fell is a full-on audio and visual onslaught with all the tricks of the horror trade being wheeled out and put to excellent effect. The visual effects employed in this show are stunningly good, most impressive of all was the simple use of silent darkness during the movements of props and cast members – here a perfectly normal and standard part of any theatre show was turned into a rather uncomfortable nervousness in having to anticipate what might appear (and where) when the lights suddenly came back on.
Also outstanding was the use of music and sound effects, both injected into the performance fully and continually, rather than used to link set or scene changes, as is usually the case. The combination of dim lighting and deep, rumbling sound effects genuinely created the desired sensations of discomfort and unease, a very impressive achievement when coupled with the unpleasant course that the story was taking.
The plotline for Fell borrows heavily from other horror classics, but for fans of the genre that will probably be a very good thing. There is more than a subtle hint of 1973 classic The Wicker Man in the central concept of: police are looking for a missing girl; but the locals are just twisted freaks. Then there’s definitely a very creepy Silence of the Lambs kind of chill added in the form of an persistent butterfly fetish that probably means something profound but you just can’t quite figure it out.
Add into that a little bit of Murder She Wrote in the sense that: this nosey crime-fighter is going to get the chop herself if she doesn’t stop being so annoying and just get out of there right now. And there even seems to be the super dark elements of Wuthering Heights in the constant references to the weather and the geography as two things that will just get you in some uncontrollable and unpredictable way.
The performance isn’t quite perfect and there are some aspects that seemed to dilute the tension and stress, most notably the flow of the performance feels slightly stifled by the fact that lead performer Florence Rose King both acts out the role of Detective Jane Shipley as well as narrating sections of the storyline in the first-person sense. Towards the end the narration seemed to switch to a recorded voice complete with freakish reverberation and echo, and that seemed to work a lot better, both in terms of effect and also in terms of splitting performance from contextual narration.
However, as a piece of theatrical writing there are some cleverly constructed and very well thought out linkage pieces that add huge credibility to this show. Again the Murder She Wrote influence seems to come through as several of the clues that Detective Shipley focuses in on end up being facts that were actually presented earlier in the performance and were hence in plain sight for all to see, leading to the classic whodunnit sense of: I should have spotted that earlier.
Obscura Theatre are definitely right in their assertion that mainstream theatre world seems to be resistant to genres such as horror, fantasy and folk tales. But if Fell is anything to go by then that resistance should hopefully be broken very soon – this is a refreshingly innovative and ambitious show that not only makes a wonderfully welcome change to the usual, safe genres of theatre world but one which actually works as a full-blown example of true theatrical horror.
|Visual pleasure||Superb set design combined with smoke effects and lighting. The whole experience of arriving at Antwerp Mansion, the Health & Safety nightmare of the candle-lit stairs, even leaving the building afterwards was just perfect for the genre and story being presented.||5|
|Auditory pleasure||A superb example of sound and backing effects being injected into a performance to enhance and improve it. The sound and audio inputs became a notable feature themselves and this show would be a lot poorer without them.||5|
|Architecture & Theme||The general concept is excellent and the story is both believable and sinister enough to pass as an example of horror. The overall effect was strongest when Jacob Beckett’s delusion and instability was alluded to and inferred, though the more explicit horror scenes were also delivered very well.||4|
|Artistic delivery||Good performances from both lead performers and the supporting casts, with innovative improvisation on stage to represent different rooms and buildings. Slightly weakened by the lead character having to narrate the story as well as acting out a role at the same time, which didn’t quite work.||3|
|Overall impact||So refreshing to see horror attempted in theatre and as an overall experience this is an excellent one. This is a show that should appeal to general theatre fans who may want to see something different, this isn’t necessarily a show that you have to be a horror fan to enjoy.||4|
|0||Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse|
|1||Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor|
|2||Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special|
|3||Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way|
|4||Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive|
|5||Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.|