Adam Z Robinson
The Book of Darkness & Light
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
For me, good ghost stories are an essential part of the Christmas period. The Book of Darkness & Light has been touring its latest production since October, but I was fortunate to see Shivers in Scarborough less than a fortnight before 25 December.
As the theatre where The Woman in Black was first staged over thirty years ago, the Stephen Joseph Theatre is the perfect venue in which to watch writer and storyteller Adam Robinson perform three sinister tales with musical accompaniment from Ben Styles on violin.
At the beginning of the show, Robinson explains that both he and Styles are compelled by the magical Book of Darkness & Light to travel the country sharing its spooky tales with the general public until words no longer appear on its pages. This is an intriguing set-up and I’m slightly disappointed that Robinson didn’t explore the story behind the demonic book in some sort of frame narrative.
This, however, is only a minor caveat in a show that kept me enthralled from the very beginning, ratcheting up the tension with each new story.
In "The New Priest of Black Pines", Robinson reads the journal of a doctor who visits a remote island to treat her sick brother, only to discover that the islanders are burying their dead neighbours with their severed heads at their feet. Told in ornate language redolent of M R James, an atmosphere of unease slowly builds up, and we’re forced to question whether the islanders have fallen prey to a vampiric enemy or a form of mass delusion.
The next story, "Dead Air", is my favourite of the evening. Structured as a radio phone-in show, in which the DJ’s voice is pre-recorded, Robinson plays the part of a man haunted by the revenge he took on his cruel grandmother. Formally inventive and deliciously scary, this story left me unnerved in the best possible way.
The final story of the evening, "A Horror in Porcelain", is the most theatrical of the three, making the greatest use of lighting and props to achieve its scares. An eccentric millionaire sends his assistant to purchase a notorious antique doll with a blood-curdling history, with catastrophic results. What might have been a typical possessed doll story—that episode of The Twilight Zone featuring Telly Savalas springs to mind—morphs into something even more disturbing.
Shivers is delightfully sinister fun. Robinson is clearly steeped in Gothic film and literature, and his stories manage to capture the strange combination of the cosy and the horrifying that make ghost stories so pleasurable. He revels in the linguistic richness of his tales, and his engaging brand of storytelling encourages audience members to lean forward in their seats and listen more intently.
Ben Styles’s violin playing enhances the storytelling by underscoring sinister moments and heightening tension. Most importantly, it never overwhelms the storytelling—precisely what you want from musical accompaniment.
I enjoyed this production so much that I now regret missing The Book of Darkness & Light’s earlier self-titled show. If you enjoy theatrical storytelling and the macabre then you can’t do much better than Shivers.