Spending an hour on the edge of your seat whilst being immersed like never before in a haunting tale is a sure way to assuage any nostalgia one may be feeling after Halloween. Tucker’s Hall, the home of the historical Guild of Exeter’s ancient cloth trade since 1471, is a stunning setting for Substance and Shadow Theatre’s play ‘One for Sorrow’. This hidden jewel is incorporated into the play’s narrative so much so as to almost make it a character in the play itself!
any lover of gothic fiction would thoroughly enjoy this play, as would anyone who is partial to the uncanny
Entering the building and being led up a staircase with wood-panelled walls and stained-glass windows into a chapel-like room immediately set a spooky and eerie tone for the evening’s entertainment ahead. The audience was arranged in a semi-circle around the floor space that would act as a stage, this immersive set-up soon being equalled by the performance itself. The actors broke the fourth wall from the off by interacting with the audience at the play’s opening: we found ourselves involuntarily raising non-existent glasses to the wedded couple’s union in the play at the insistence of the character of Jeremiah Northcott, or the Beadle, (Nathan Simpson). The Beadle went on to relate the history of Tucker’s Hall to us, the audience thus being able to invest in both the narrative and in the building in which the play was performed and partially set. This candle-lit armchair storyteller held us enraptured and prepared us for a night of gothic tropes and thrilling terror.
the close quarters [made] it impossible to escape this tale of overwhelming and malevolent human fanaticism
All the standard tropes and motifs are present throughout the play: harbingers of doom in the form of magpies; a reserved and enigmatic gentleman; a dead first wife; a young bride; a brother of questionable sanity; and an alluringly forbidden instrument secured away at the top of the house, all of which contribute to this golden mix of horror and gothic mystery. The story goes so: a respectable Guild-member by the name of Thomas Flay (Richard Pulman) takes the young Martha Skibbow (Fern Stone) to be his second wife, marrying her in his late wife’s wedding dress which still smells of her! Thomas’ heretofore estranged brother, Ignatius Flay (Midge Mullin), returns to the family home for the wedding from the abbey to which he had been sent by his brother in the hopes of curing him of his ‘visions’. The visibly skittish bride suggests an innocent enough game of hide and seek which however results in her disappearance. Months pass of fruitless searching and Ignatius is increasingly drawn once more to his beloved Glass Harmonium hidden away in the attic, an instrument of truth which is deeply feared by his brother. Set against the backdrop of a haunting voice singing the well-known nursery rhyme ‘One for Sorrow’, and an aborted diary entry, Ignatius takes it upon himself to discover what actually happened to Martha, unable to shake the sense of foreboding reminiscent of the unexplained drowning of Thomas’ late wife Elsbeth…
This candle-lit armchair storyteller held us enraptured and prepared us for a night of gothic tropes and thrilling terror
Being in such close proximity to the actors and the action made the poignant plot all the more effective, the close quarters making it impossible to escape this tale of overwhelming and malevolent human fanaticism. The production’s use of multimedia was remarkable, a few rudimentarily filmed scenes being enacted on a black and white projector, expanding an otherwise intimate stage into a cold, winter’s night. Yet this platform took away somewhat from the pivotal scene of the ultimately fatal end to a game of hide and seek. The discovery of Martha in her deadly hiding spot would have perhaps been better revealed and experienced via the Beadle’s suspenseful narration as opposed to the rather tacky and clichéd zoom in on a ring around a skeletal finger. Furthermore, some of the action felt heavy and scripted at times, an impression produced by halting music and sound transitions, the abrupt cut offs as opposed to fading out making the beginning of spoken lines seem contrived.
this golden mix of horror and gothic mystery
Ignatius, a comical spider of ahhs and oohs was acted somewhat melodramatically at points, especially in indecisive and guilt-riddled moments of resisting the temptation to play the Harmonium or reveal his knowledge to his brother. Furthermore, a disadvantage of being in such close proximity to the actors was how blatant theatrical feints were: when Pulman made as if to slap Mullin or Stone, his hand would visibly come into contact with their hands as opposed to their faces, the ensuing clasping of their cheeks being almost metatheatrical.
Nevertheless, ‘One for Sorrow’ proved to be an engaging and haunting performance which will resonate with audience members for days after. With hints of Daphne du Maurier’s novel ‘Rebecca’, any lover of gothic fiction would thoroughly enjoy this play, as would anyone who is partial to the uncanny.
You can still catch ‘One for Sorrow’ from the 27th-29th of November 2018, but at a different venue: St Nicholas Priory. More information can be found at www.substanceandshadow.co.uk and tickets are available online: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/event/270034