Adam Megiddo, Alex Bartram, Andrew Pugsley, C on Chambers Street, Edinburgh Fringe, Extempore Theatre / Something for the Weekend, H. P. Lovecraft, Improv, The Society of Strange, Theatre Review, Weird Fiction
There are two days left of Extempore Theatre’s “The Society of Strange” at C on Chambers Street. The show submits an audacious concept and one which I found myself wishing could be greatly more in circulation at the Fringe and elsewhere. The three performers Adam Megiddo, Alex Bartram, and Andrew Pugsley take the existing model of improvised comedy and graft the telling of Lovecraftian “Weird tales” on to it. Tychy, it has to be stated, is at one with the literary critic Edmund Wilson in thinking that, at least when it comes to the American horror writer HP Lovecraft, “the only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art.” Moreover, the literary industries which have grown up around infinitely better canonical “Weird” writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and MR James tend to inspire, as their ultimate product, spiritless pastiches of their writing. Improv might provide a new means of putting more life back into Weird Fiction. “The Society of Strange” certainly brings an unexpected freshness and exhilaration to otherwise familiar creeps.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult for me to review improv beyond testifying to the skill of the performers. And yes, of course, they are skilful, energetic, and quick-thinking on their feet. For a theatre critic who focuses on writing, however, my job here is rather like reviewing cobwebs. No two shows are ever the same and a spectacular performance is enjoyed once before it is gone with the wind. If these performers accidentally come out with a masterpiece, well nobody has written it down. The titles of previous stories are chalked up on a beautiful antique blackboard behind the performers, leaving us to rue what we have missed.
For what it is worth, though, the improv sometimes works very well and sometimes it does not work completely. There were three stories, and the one which was triggered by a picture selected by an audience member was altogether the keenest, leading to an innovative and at times genuinely creepy retelling of the changeling myth. Megiddo’s fairy, come to take the baby back, was one of the few parts of the performance not to have a dry humour underpinning it somewhere. There was consequently real danger, the sudden weight of the sinister, to this figure. The other two stories, by contrast, were a little garbled. A theatregoer nominated the profession of a taxidermist and the resultant story eventually led us to a rather humdrum werewolf. We were also asked to tell of a strange personal experience. An audience member’s dream of being attacked by a bee (yes, really!) led us to a tangled but still chilling account of a poisonous bee sting and a nightmarish medical intervention.
The audio was very good, with the tech no doubt shuffling frantically through an iPod of Hammer Horror music and sound effects to keep up with the performances. Yet the society was occasionally drowned out, producing the impression that we were watching a show that was being performed at the bottom of a river.
These reviews have to be good for something. My research has traced the startling lines chalked on the blackboard behind the performers to an Icelandic nursery rhyme.
Sleep, you black-eyed pig.
Fall into a deep pit,
Full of ghosts.