It’s that time of year again. Timeless pagan festival clashes with cat-ears kitsch to produce the grotesque smorgasbord of a cultural phenomenon we dub Hallowe’en. And with it comes a good crop of spooky student drama – this week’s double-bill of The Death of Maria and The Ghosts of Barucone Manor at The Burton Taylor. The latter, playwright Eli Keren’s first offering since Hilary’s The Aleph, is one for those who like their closet-skeletons plastic, glow-in-the-dark, and easily boxed up for next year; think The Turn of the Screw crossed with The Importance of Being Earnest.
The premise of this marvellously un-horrifying horror is well-worn, but not hackneyed: hapless townie Ruben (Harry Lee) comes to spend the night at his Aunt Barucone’s country pile, only to find that all is not as it seems. There are footsteps on the landing, voices in the hall, and creaky rocking chairs in the parlour. The stage is set for some textbook ghoulish Victorian capers, and, in general, the cast does not disappoint.
Emma Turnbull and Lizzy Renton are both animated and eldritch as the twin daughters of the family – Turnbull’s swivel-eyed ethereality stands out in particular as she spins her ghostly tales of gore to the increasingly unnerved Ruben. The production’s dual centres of gravity, though, are Will Law as the Butler and Kate Bennet as the totally unhinged Lady Barucone herself. Law’s deep, plummy tones and confident stage presence lend him perfect gravitas, whilst Bennet’s Barucone is a comic (if slightly one-dimensional) treat. She also lands some of the best and most bizarre lines – at one point she reminisces over the twins’ infanthood: “Yes, there was lots of flesh running about…”.
There are moments of darker comedy to satisfy appetites for more sinister Hallowe’en fare – Ruben’s awkward confusion over the twins’ claim that “We weren’t always twins” is solved by a clipped, matter-of-fact: “We were triplets”. Unfortunately, there were weaker links. Alex Wood’s hyperventilating housekeeper was a one-trick pony, and Lee took a few scenes to really get into his stride as Ruben. The occasional slips into modern language were irksome; “that’s not what we were going for”, “yeah”, and “this one time” were jarring. But that didn’t spoil a festive evening of spine-tingling shenanigans, and besides, at just over sixty minutes you’ll be out before the witching hour (and before the revellers take to the streets with their rather more modern take on the age-old festival).
The Ghosts of Barucone Manor is showing at the Burton Taylor Studio at 9.30pm until Saturday 2nd November. More information and tickets are available here.