[The following contains spoilers.]
One always finds a lot of ghosts in Fringe theatre, but they are usually too humanised to be truly frightening. The ghosts of old lovers wistfully returning – the ghosts of betrayed or abandoned friends – these passive spooks invariably retain their human speech and recognisably human motivations. Yet Stewart Pringle’s “As Ye Sow,” which can be presently found in the Pleasance Dome, recalls the old true ghosts of M.R. James’ fiction. This play’s ghost is predatory, deranged and demonstrably inhuman.
Theatrical ghost stories are typically unable or unwilling to frighten their audiences. “The Woman in Black,” for example, is mysterious and blandly sinister, but hardly frightening. In deliberately setting out to make your hair stand on end, Theatre of the Damned should be commended for its ambition. This sort of theatre is not for everybody and it earns some inevitable criticism in reviews from Three Weeks and Broadway Baby. Merely saying “boo” is not, it seems, very sophisticated. It does not result in great theatre for adults, or at least for the sort of adults who subsist on Chekhov. Yet there is actually something starkly aesthetic to frightening people. As with painting beauty, it either works or it doesn’t. Gambling on your ghost, you either win or you lose.
I was initially suspicious of “As Ye Sow” because it cites M.R. James as an influence and James has influenced enormous volumes of amateurish writing. In being set in a care home, this play also recalls the disappointing 2011 BBC adaptation of James’ “Whistle and I’ll Come to You,” which went decidedly awol in choosing to tackle the themes of ageing and dementia. Yet “As Ye Sow” is far superior to “Whistle and I’ll Come to You.” Pringle’s play remains scrupulously Jamesian and aside from being performed at midday without a roaring log fire in sight, it is far more likely to please aficionados of the traditional English ghost story.
We spend a night with the doddering and crabbit Clifford (Jeffrey Mayhew) in his gloomy care home. His daughter (Scarlet Sweeney) visits with the intention of persuading Clifford to sign away some of the family’s farmland to pay for his own care. Clifford reacts with such dismay that the ghost effectively crashes on to the stage like a pantomime horse. Clifford must have murdered his purportedly missing wife and she must be buried on this farmland. With the ghost and her motive for revenge identified, we are from now on just waiting for Clifford to die.
Either Clifford is hallucinating that his carers are mistreating him or they are quite plausibly abusive. Either the care home’s electrics are malfunctioning or the wiring in Clifford’s own brain is faulty. Odd sounds burst over the stage and the lights flicker and dim, creating a brilliantly jumpy atmosphere. The nurse (Stephanie Walls) flips from cheerily encouraging Clifford to eat to shovelling congealed slop into his mouth. This care home is surely an antechamber to hell. Frights jump out of the scenery both when you least expect them and when you are on the edge of your seat waiting for them. Thankfully it was too early in the day to bring a beer into the theatre, otherwise I would have ended up wearing most of it.
Clifford is humbled and pathetic – we are likely to feel sorry for him for getting into such ruinous debt, albeit to the supernatural rather than to Wonga.com. I was uncertain whether John Garfield-Roberts was personally menacing enough – as the sinister electrician who invades Clifford’s room – to exploit the full potential of this character. But if this play was any more frightening then half of the audience would have been carried out on stretchers. After the surprise ending of “As Ye Sow,” we find the audience laughing with gratitude and amazement. During the applause, the cast are tittering to themselves. Dying in a care home may be horrific, but horror can also be fun.