FROM the darkest forests of Bavaria, to the alleyways of the souks of Marrakech to the frozen wastes of Siberia to … this place … Salisbury. So begins Shivers, stories from The Book of Darkness and Light. There are few things I like better on a chilly winter’s evening than a good ghost story and last night’s show provided us with just that – three good stories in fact, which, as promised, were tales of terrifying folklore, ancient superstition and contemporary haunting. Performed by a solitary storyteller beautifully accompanied by solo violin, Shivers literally held our attention throughout. But sadly, whilst this hardworking duo deserved every ounce of success, we didn’t really get the shivers.
As The Storyteller (and author too) Adam Z. Robinson proved to be a gifted and natural raconteur, swapping effortlessly between narrator and a variety of characters – ten or twelve of them I should think over the course of the evening. In the first of the tales, The New Priest of Blackpines, set in an old rectory on a remote island in the North Sea, we had something reminiscent of M.R. James at his very best. The second, Dead Air, took the somewhat unlikely form of a late-night radio phone-in, a broadcast conversation between a troubled individual and a “spirit medium” working the graveyard shift. In the final story, A Horror in Porcelain, we were taken to the home of the so-called Pale Lord and his vast collection of rare toys, focusing on the recent purchase of a mutilated doll known as one of the Children of Barlow. Three uncanny, unquiet tales from The Book of Darkness and Light, all with the potential to make us shiver. And Robinson, his voice discreetly amplified (maybe unnecessarily), gave them his all. His facial expressions and body language were mesmerising – I particularly liked the way he drew his hands and fingers across his face from time to time – and the rhythm, range and timbre of his speaking voice kept us enthralled. His interaction with the recorded voice of Alice, the medium in the second story, was particularly well timed, while the opening of the box containing the disfigured doll and the subsequent slamming of the lid with the warning to “keep the doll as it is” was a model of theatrical timing.
Sharing the stage with Robinson throughout was composer Ben Styles as The Musician, subtly lit and equally deserving congratulation. His impeccable violin playing of themes and ideas representing the various characters, moods and locations all served to heighten the drama whilst never going over the top. Be it the gothic horror motifs used in the first story, the music so reminiscent of Arvo Part created for the second or the folk-like quality of the main melody featured in the last tale, Styles’ music, some of which was very effectively electronically processed, captured the essence of the stories to a fault.
Shivers gave us some good honest story-telling, totally devoid of cliché and superfluous trappings. Almost nothing was over-stated, although, just maybe we would have preferred it if we had never seen the face of the doll in the final story, thus letting our imaginations do the work for us.
So why didn’t we get the shivers? Has the 21st Century anaesthetised us to this sort of thing? I hope not. I am pretty sure that we in the audience wanted it to be scarier. We were silent and intensely involved. What was lacking? To put it simply, I think it was the venue. Much as I love the Salberg, it is, obviously, a fairly modern theatre and not a naturally spooky place. Looking at the company’s schedule I noticed that they were in the Shelley Theatre in Bournemouth at the very start of their tour in October last year. There we have a similar sized performance space that, given its general state of decay not to mention its Mary Shelley connections, possibly has too much atmosphere for its own good. Such a place would have had an absolutely electrifying effect I am sure. I wish I had seen it. The Salberg is a wonderful, intimate performing space, and with its clever lighting and use of some well-chosen props, last night almost worked. But Shivers really demands a space that is even more intimate, candlelit maybe, roaring log fire if possible, a place with a bit of history that more naturally lends itself to creepiness. An old church perhaps, the hall or drawing room of some great house.
Last night’s production was the second group of stories from The Book of Darkness and Light and the company’s current extensive tour is about two thirds of the way through. However, I understand that a third instalment is due. I shall go make no mistake, but I think I’ll check the venue carefully too.
Shivers was a co-production between Harrogate Theatre, Square Chapel Arts Centre, Halifax and producers LittleMighty. It runs at Salisbury until Saturday 12th with other regional performances at the Groundlings Theatre in Portsmouth on Saturday 26th and Dorchester Corn Exchange the following night.