Joe O'Byrne (as Grady), and Dan Thackeray (Vincent)
Photo: Shay Rowan
Written & directed by Joe O’Byrne
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
Reviewed on 10th April 2016
Future performances 16th to 20th August at The King’s Arms, Salford
Review by Brian Gorman
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 (superbly played by a laconic, and aptly Bogartian, 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 camp, eye-liner worrying, ferret-like medium, ‘Cairo’ (a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing Andrew Yates), and the far more domineering, supremely confident, fellow spirit mitherer Scarabus (Ian Curley, suitably dynamic). The seductive, muck-raking journalist Vivian (a prowling, man-eating Jo Haydock), genial and enigmatic manservant Grady (O’Byrne himself in slick, Kevin Spacey-esque mode), and the obviously dodgy keeper of Blaine Manor, Vincent (Daniel Thackeray, managing to be both subtle and melodramatic at the same time; harking at the man himself, Vincent Price in ‘Witchfinder General’). 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 bare brick walls, high ceiling, and atmospheric backdrop of the suitably spooky, and dilapidated, Victorian Hope Mill, the action is beautifully claustrophobic. 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. Mix in a nerve-jangling soundscape by Justin Wetherill, throbbing menacingly throughout, and helping to shred nerves already barely held together by a thread, and you have a perfect recipe for one hell of an entertaining evening.
The full six out of five stars it is!