Unhomely: Three Tales of Terror

Adam Z Robinson
The Book of Darkness & Light in association with LittleMighty
The Courtyard, Leeds Playhouse

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Adam Z Robinson in Unhomely
Amy Helena in rehearsals for Unhomely Credit: Gabi Dawkins
Brian Duffy in rehearsals for Unhomely Credit: Gabi Dawkins

Adam Z Robinson is a well-established purveyor of spooky tales, who has garnered positive reviews for past shows like Shivers. This title of this latest work, punning on Freud’s concept of the uncanny (‘unheimlich’ in the original German), points to the way these three new ghost stories are loosely organised around the idea that the home, usually a place of comfort, can hide eerie secrets.

In front of a stylish set representing a dilapidated mansion of the kind you might find in a Susan Hill story, Robinson narrates the tale along with two other performers, Amy Helena and Brian Duffy. These use BSL and visual vernacular, a form of gestural language that edges into physical theatre to represent not only meaning but atmosphere, character and place. It’s a novel (to me) approach, and a truly compelling one—an incorporation of an accessible approach which is about not only replicating for d/Deaf audiences the spoken narrative but enhancing the experience all round.

The company begins with a framing narrative, common to Robinson’s work, which presents us with a choice: continue with them into the tales or leave while we still can. This pact made, we dive into the first story, The Reckoning of Patience Whitaker. The setting is 18th-century Yorkshire, where a simple but happy couple gradually build themselves a dream home whose grandeur draws the eye of the local mayor. When they decline the mayor’s offer to buy, he turns to dirty tricks, spreading rumours of satanic rituals perpetrated behind the walls of the house. Needless to say, things go pretty badly for all concerned.

As the company members tell the tale, they multirole effectively, sharing and handing over characters in a way that facilitates fluid storytelling while always remaining crystal clear. Dick Bonham’s direction, and the BSL direction and dramaturgy by Jean St Clair and Jeni Draper, are superb here, with gestural work creating powerful characters and locales.

One main caveat is that each of the three stories feels too long by about a third. The foreboding build tends in all three to be undermined in some way: in the first and third, it’s a slightly bathetic reliance on grim (described) imagery, all blood and bones and flesh, which, for me, veered towards the silly rather than the truly haunting. Guy Connolly’s score is effective, but his sound effects get rather overemphatic here too. Each story has a twist too many—and they all feel fairly predictable, with an inevitability that lacks the weight of the strange building pressure of an M R James story, for instance.

Perhaps, too, the scale and setting are not quite right for this kind of work. The lighting (Tim Skelly) feels rather flat and bright, where flickering atmospherics would help more. And the size of the venue felt wrong: this would spook more in an intimate space, where audience and performers were in closer communion. Emma Williams’s set and costume designs are lovely, but again barely necessary: the set acts as backdrop more than integral design element. There are, in story one, some beautiful woodcut illustrations by Richard Wells, projected onto the upper floor of the house backdrop.

The second story, Shirley’s Monster, centres on Amy Helena’s performance as the eponymous Shirley, with pre-recorded narration by Andrea Heaton. Like the whole cast, Heaton does well, but the tale is again a little too derivative to generate real terror. The third is told through letters—a classic horror or ghost story device, but difficult to bring off effectively on stage.

Robinson is a gifted storyteller, who crafts and weights his sentences with skill. And the way the whole ensemble combines to share the narrative is effective and very watchable. But I came away feeling that the piece would be more effective in smaller, more intimate venues, with a cut of about an hour, and with less reliance on gruesome twists and sudden loud, bone-crunching sound effects: less of the gore and more of the uncanny.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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