Jo Haydock, Phil Dennison, and Peter Slater
(photo by Shay Rowan)
Written & directed by Joe O’Byrne
The King’s Arms, Salford
Runs until 20th August 2016
It’s not often I go to see a theatrical production for a second time, and so soon after seeing it once (just a few months ago, on its debut at Manchester’s Hope Mill), but Joe O’Byrne’s cracking ghost story is well worth it. It didn’t matter that I already knew the ingenious twists and turns, as there are so many enjoyable elements in O’Byrne’s love letter to the golden age of Hollywood spine-chillers.
You know the great gag in the movie ‘Spinal Tap’, where the amps go “up to eleven”? Well, I wish the standard five star system went up to six, because this stunning cracker of a show would get the full set of pointy things from me.
Imagine the great Martin Scorcese suddenly popping up at Cannes with a good old-fashioned twisty-turny, Hitchcockian haunted house comedy-thriller. A renowned director, known primarily for his hard-hitting, near-the knuckle, often controversial, and grittily realistic dramas. Bit of a shock to the system, right? Well, local hero Joe O’Byrne (Greater Manchester’s finest chronicler of the modern day social conscience) is our very own Scorcese; justifiably critically acclaimed for his bruising series of plays and films set on the fictional Paradise Heights housing estate, and he’s done just that.
‘The Haunting Of Blaine Manor’ is a gloriously written rollercoaster of a play, chockful of golden era Hollywood in-jokes, nods to classic movies featuring the likes of Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Humphrey Bogart et al. There’s a great Ed Wood vibe (the ‘worst director in Hollywood History’, wonderfully portrayed in Tim Burton’s best movie ‘Ed Wood’), but where Mr Wood was a truly awful writer (hugely optimistic, but ultimately excruitiatingly untalented), Mr Byrne is an absolute master of his dark arts.
It’s England, 1953, and there’s some rum goings-on up at the creepy old Blaine Manor. Proto X-Files investigator, Dr Roy Earle (a suitably crumpled, jaded, and laconic Peter Slater) arrives to attend a séance, and is keen to debunk anything remotely supernatural. Joining him are a rather colourful bunch of brilliantly realised characters, including the uber camp, eye-liner worrying, ferret-like medium, ‘Cairo’ (a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing Andrew Yates), and the theatrical, crazy-haired, eccentric Adolphus Scarabus (Phil Dennison supplying understated gravitas to a character previously played by Ian Curly as a much more arch, and arrogant figure). The seductive, muck-raking journalist Vivian (a sassy, and cheeky, Jo Haydock), genial and enigmatic manservant Grady (O’Byrne himself, giving an eye-twinklingly, Brando-esque delivery), and the obviously dodgy keeper of Blaine Manor, Vincent (Daniel Thackeray, managing to be both subtle and melodramatic at the same time; channelling the spirit of the great man himself, Vincent Price). When the motley ensemble are told the planned séance is cancelled (due to the untimely death of a fellow guest psychic), the game is afoot when bad weather maroons our sinister six on the windswept moors.
Set in a single, elegantly decorated room, with the high-domed ceiling of the intimate attic auditorium of The King’s Arms, the atmosphere is beautifully claustrophobic, and unsettling. Our dirty half dozen are crammed together, and it’s only a matter of time before booze and blood are spilled, secrets come tumbling out, and twist upon twist revealed. I honestly thought I’d guessed where it was all heading, but O’Byrne pulled the metaphorical rug right out from under us with a cracking final scene. I can’t begin to reveal any of the secrets of Blaine Manor, but Joe O’Byrne must have sold (or at least pawned for a few weeks) his very soul to write this. It’s all perfectly paced by O’Byrne’s directing, and when the shocks come, they are never telegraphed, keeping the audience on their toes throughout. The dead are very much alive and kicking at Blaine Manor, with offstage characters making their otherworldly presence felt, and causing many audience members to twitch nervously at times, thanks to a nerve-jangling soundscape by Justin Wetherill, throbbing menacingly throughout. This is a hell of an entertaining evening, with a perfect ensemble cast, some clever sleight-of-hand stage business, and a beautifully handled finale that certainly packs a pile-driver of a punch.
Six out of five stars.