Charlie Basley, Edinburgh Fringe, Emma Summerton, Greenside @ Infirmary Street, Horror, Lillian Race, Nottingham New Theatre, Sally Johnston, The Devil You Know: A Horror Play, Theatre Review, Zendell Crichlow
What news of Tychy’s favourite student theatre company, the Nottingham New Theatre?
There is an uncommon foray into horror this year and a potentially thrilling mixing of products that are normally kept on separate shelves. I am an earnest student of theatrical horror and I find it very exhilarating on those rare occasions whenever a Fringe production achieves any notability in this field. Stewart Pringle’s “As Ye Sow” (2012) and Rishi Penham’s “Pizza Delique” (2016) amount to some of the most electrifying theatre that I have seen precisely because they make it to the summit of horror’s forbidding peak. But I am sceptical that the NNT can really master theatrical horror. Their shows are typically as slick and controlled as dance. The finish that they always put on their theatre is the very opposite of the anarchic danger that true horror needs, as its life force.
When taking my seat at Emma Summerton’s “The Devil You Know: A Horror Play,” at Greenside on Infirmary Street, I am hit with a deep hunger for this play to work. I sense the same feeling growing in the audience as well. The story has all the familiar home comforts that lovers of horror enjoy so much: some quarrelsome teenagers who are filming a documentary; some monkeying about with a Ouija board; a chant to summon a demon; The Woods; and an entity named the Faceless Lady who sounds like Slenderman’s mistress. Yet I can’t desire to wallow in all of these delights and simultaneously demand originality from Summerton’s play. We are throwing the characters into a sticky net of clichés and Americanisms (there are no longer any examples of The Woods that you can get lost in within the UK). They will have quite a fight to get a limb free.
In the end there are a couple of moments of diverting horror. The teenagers dabble in acid and three are frozen into an eerie stillness whilst the fourth, Bailey (Lillian Race), flounders about in a nightmare, trying to revive them. There are scary psychic standoffs between Bailey and Quinn (Sally Johnston), which always leaves one of them convulsing amazingly on the floor.
The cast evince the breezy skill and aplomb of a customary NNT ensemble, but this production does not have the resources to carry off the jump scares. Such devices have to be carefully planned by the writer, rather than being simply crafted by the cast. Similarly, this play’s use of overhead footage wilts rather than thrives. The footage looks stiffly amateurish when compared to the energetic physical theatre on stage. These scenes could have been filmed live, using the handheld cameras that are readily available within the story, and this might have given the drama a greater freshness.
The ages of the four characters are unclear but I am guessing that they each have at least one foot still in childhood. Their clearing in the woods is as far-flung as the desert island in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. There is never any sexual element to their story and their game of “Never Have I Ever” expresses no authentic teenaged squeamishness. I could spot no children in the audience today, but I posit that this play would function much better if it was redesigned for younger theatregoers. Some swearing and a rather disconcerting throat-cutting would need to be removed. Moreover, the present venue has no tiered seating and points of this play’s action are conducted at floor level, which had left some of today’s adults straining to see. If sweetened slightly, “The Devil You Know” might connect with that age range that has more of an attachment to horror than my largely nostalgic one.