Curious Tales for Christmas
Theatre Upstairs, Dublin ***
What is it about Christmas that should make ghost stories so compelling? Is it the natural spookiness of winter-dark December afternoons? Is it that their layered moral tones complement a seasonal sensibility of charity and goodwill? Or maybe we should just blame Charles Dickens, whose yuletide-set A Christmas Carol is the greatest ghost story of them all.
Curious Tales for Christmas leaves Dickens behind for some more off-beat tales of supernatural happenings, whose settings do not speak directly to the season but whose atmosphere is naturally suited to a Christmas telling.
Adapted for the stage by Stewart Roche, the first of the thrilling trio is a straightforward storytelling affair, as Jim Roche gives life to the undead of Ambrose Bierce’s haunted-house story The Middle Toe of the Right Foot. In a saloon-style set-up, under Colm Maher’s blue lights, Roche looks subtly and suitably deranged; with silver hair and rolling eyes he recounts the house’s ruin. The narrative structure of Bierce’s story works better on the page than on stage, but what the telling lacks in clarity is made up for in atmosphere.
The second offering is an Arthur Conan Doyle gem, Playing With Fire, in which a seance goes wrong, resulting in a unicorn going on a rampage. Retold as a short one-act, Jim Roche makes his presence felt again as the maniacal mystic Hugo Sinclair. Exaggerated performances bring a comic rather than an eerie tone to proceedings, but, under the direction of Vincent O’Reilly, the denouement remains uncanny.
The final and most enjoyable of the tales is a modern adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Judge’s House. Patrick O’Donnell is Malcolm, a screenwriter sent on retreat to Cork to finish a script, who finds himself possessed by a muse that takes the form of a monster rat. Although the disturbing end is well-signposted by Stoker, and visually highlighted on Martin Cahill’s set, that does nothing to detract from the sense of suspense.
The three stories are brought together by an original voiceover delivered by Simon Toal that perfectly pitches the tone of this production. Curious Tales for Christmas never takes itself too seriously and yet it pays due respect to the Victorian material. This makes it a perfect antidote to the pantomime for older children and their parents.
Until December 22nd