The Judge's House
John Goodrum, based on the story by Bram Stoker
Rumpus Theatre Company
Customs House, South Shields, and touring
Being a theatre critic has many advantages (not least being sometimes getting to see more theatre in a week than most people can afford to see in a month), but it does have big disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage - and I confess that I didn't recognise it until a few hours after seeing The Judge's House - is that it is easy to lose sight of what theatre, at its most basic, is.
We look for the meaning; we scrutinise the sub-text minutely; we examine our emotional responses and stack them up against what we understand the author wants: in short, we delve into the depths.
At its most basic, however, theatre is story-telling. If a play doesn't tell a good story, and tell it well, then, no matter what else it may be, it really doesn't deserve the name of drama. Drama comes from the Greek word draein, to do. It's about action, the things people do, a story.
What brings on this sudden access of philosophising? Watching The Judge's House. Or rather, watching my reactions to The Judge's House, for when I started to think about writing this review as I drove home, I found I just didn't know what to say about it. Of course I could say that it was very well acted but, to be honest, there are so many good actors around and so little work, that any company which uses poor actors simply has to be going out of its way to find someone who isn't good enough! Is it a parody? No. Is it an examination of a mind under stress? No. Is it a critique of the class system of the early twentieth century? No. The what on earth is it?
My Damascene revelation didn't actually occur until I was back at home making a cup of tea. Funny how the prosaic can often make you think more clearly!
What The Judge's House does is, quite simply, tell a story. And it does it quite simply, too. There are just two actors: one (Laura Hayes) plays three parts and the other (David Martin) just one, the central character Malcolm Malcolmson. The story is told in flashback, with Hayes, as innkeper's wife Mrs Witham, being the narrator. As one would expect from Bram Stoker, it's a bit of a Gothic horror, but author Goodrum finds the humour in it, using all the Gothic ingredients - the raging storm, thunder and lightning, glowing rats' eyes in the dark, the begrimed portrait on the wall, and even a Psycho-like dénouement at the end. There's a beautiful moment at the end when Mrs Whitham's face is distorted by cleverly placed lighting to look like the face of a rat.
(Such a pity, however, that Goodrum, for he was also the director, had a bit of fur pulled up the wall by string to simulate a rat running up a bell rope. It got a laugh, but it was the wrong sort of laughter and gave the carefully built-up atmosphere a bit of a knock.)
But that quibble apart, The Judge's House tells a damned good story well - and taught this reviewer a bit of humility. Both are, very definitely, good things!
"The Judge's House" tours until mid-November to Swindon, Trowbridge, King's Lynn, Bracknell, Sheringham, Sudbury, Wimbledon and Chesterfield.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan