Antwerp Mansion, Manchester; Wednesday 7th October, 2020
New York, many years ago: in a cold, barren room a gramophone laboriously screeches out a depressingly solemn melody – the awful, high-pitched, tinny sounds emanating from the trumpeted speaker cone yield only indistinct words which immediately hang heavy in the still, dour atmosphere.
This dark and unwelcoming realm is that of Mister Dusty Rose (Anthony Logan Cole) – a self-proclaimed Mysterious Gentleman of Variety, a man with a fondness for telling stories, but only those which he has caught himself it seems.
What could that mean?
Rose is an intriguing individual, one who exudes a visual sense of serene dignity and respectability. He looks prim and proper being so very smartly dressed in a neat waistcoat. And his gently delivered Noo Yoik accent carries a plausible suggestion of underlying calmness and confidence.
Rose says he is a collector. He appears to have accumulated some fine objects, perhaps they are precious antiques? He seems keen to show off his various trinkets, though it isn’t immediately obvious that his hoard has any particularly obvious monetary or even visual appeal.
But Rose seems to be collecting much more than just that which is physical.
Mister Dusty Rose’s GHOST SHOW is an eccentric mix of tall tales, slow-burning tension, and enough audience participation to make everyone extremely nervous and uncomfortable.
As with most theatre performances in the thriller / horror genre, the performed content veers close to being too implausible but what really makes this show is the surroundings. The Antwerp Mansion in Rusholme is genuinely a terrifying space: an old abandoned mansion that is slowly falling apart, one which is literally ready to collapse and bury everyone and everything at any moment.
There is nothing about the performance venue that isn’t mind-bendingly freaky: the completely uncertain entrance from the street, the lack of lights either outside or in, even the unsavoury local characters otherwise minding their own business on Rusholme Grove, are they just huddling by the original building gate or are they on the door wanting to see your ticket?
These exotic surroundings nicely accentuate the exoticism that surrounds Mister Dusty Rose and his wild tales of strange goings-on over on the American east coast. Put in the full context of the physical environment, he plausibly comes across as the type of character who might happily dwell in such ghastly premises.
The set and props are basic, but there is absolutely no need for anything extravagant because the surroundings add so much. Hence this performance emerges viably from the confluence of venue and theme: bare-brick walls, exposed beams, graffiti, creaking floor boards, the smell of mould and dampness in the air.
With his wild talk of crazy spookiness, Rose does eventually embark on a disturbing venture into worlds that are very much beyond the physical, realms that are beyond the here and now. But isn’t venturing beyond the here and now exactly what theatre is meant to be?
So are these ghost stories actually scary?
Whilst there is a slow build-up of tension, the one-hour running time ensures that it is never sustained for long enough to deliver any truly pant-wetting moments of shock and terror.
But what is clear is that it is the man himself, Mister Dusty Rose, who needs to be feared. Some of his actions on stage are jaw-droppingly strange and disturbing, the storyteller may actually be more terrifying than his stories.
In the end what gets induced is good old-fashioned mild peril. Mister Dusty Rose’s GHOST SHOW is actually an uncomfortable experience, but in the way that you would want spooky entertainment to be.
What comes out of this performance is a very pressing need to explain away this very, very strange man and his unrestrained talk of distasteful unpleasantries in New England. We are seeing a magician perform a trick on us. It requires explanation and rationalisation. But there simply isn’t enough information to tie his other-worldliness back to more familiar realities and so, technically, he wins.
Mister Dusty Rose’s GHOST SHOW is, therefore, a success in theatrical terms. This is a late-night visit to a man who is unlike any other that you have ever come across. And it takes place in a building that you probably don’t ever want to go back into again. But given what performance theatre has had to endure just to exist in 2020, it’s a welcome relief and pleasure to have made the visit at all.