[The following contains spoilers.]
Tim Arthur’s “Darktales” is a lavish piece of theatre but not, in the end, as merciless as its final, brutal slash of the razor is meant to symbolise. A version of this play was first performed at the Fringe in 1995; a review which was printed in the Independent in 1996 refers to the original as a “macabre, unsettling thriller” and “a hit at the Edinburgh Festival.” Perhaps “Darktales” has grown slobbish in later life.
Our venue is the Pleasance Courtyard. We begin with a raconteur, a merry old gent with a Home Counties accent. This is Alex Crowley (Andrew Paul) and he teaches Creative Writing at Edinburgh University. He is telling us the story of “Smee” which he firstly pretends to have composed himself and secondly claims to have revised from Saki’s famous original. The air is here thick with jokes, or at least ironies. Alex’s story is “ghost-written” and, like “Darktales” itself, it has been brushed up for a new generation of listeners. Yet we might also pick up a hint that Alex is not being completely straight with us, for, as every lover of midnight frights knows, “Smee” was written by A.M Burrage, not Saki. With his expertise about Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft, Alex would be aware of this, and so, in an ostensibly inconsequential but still very definite way, it is conveyed to us that he has told a lie. Wink!
A mysterious someone comes gently rapping at the chamber door, around the same hour that the Raven had once dropped in. “Darktales” is so far indulging in the home comforts of urban legends, even the goofiness of the Monster Mash. Alex has told his traditional ghost story, a vintage flowing from MR James’ cellars, and now his visitor, Jack Langton (Sean Ward), relates the sort of tale which teenagers normally scare each other with at sleepovers. There is a possessed child and a babysitter alone late at night. Just as the classic ghost story formula begins with the old friends around their blazing fireside, the same classic story is itself being used here, in a rather innovative way, as the cosy starting point. “Darktales” will duly become a lot nastier.
Despite this, the audience will no doubt perceive that the play ends up precisely where it had originally begun, dressed again in the discarded dynamic of the penny dreadful and the urban legend. For a while, however, “Darktales” had looked potentially more shocking, with its twist being apparently an unexpected lurch into hard, abrasive realism. Alas, melodramatic revelations are soon heaped on top of each other, like a burger with too many layers, and the effect is only familiar from generic horror movies rather than from unpredictable life.
This is a shame because “Darktales” can be nimble when it wants to be. There is one super seat-jumping shock, with the dial turned up to ten, but the drama is mostly content to drag, in relying upon sound effects and horseplay with the lighting for the frights. The actors’ voices sometimes seem to be lost in their vast stage. Horror is always incompatible with cliché, as Alex himself warns, and it might be more frightening to instead, as he pleads, drop the knife.