Alex Jones, Edinburgh Fringe, Elspeth McClymont-Cornell, Horror, Josh Stidder, Lizzy Fedorowycz, Paradise in the Vault, Rebecca Gray, Scary Story by Alex Jones, Selina Jones, Theatre Review, Topcliffe House Productions, Will Crane
[The following contains spoilers.]
Alex Jones’ “Scary Story” has been brought to Paradise in the Vault by some alumni of Loughborough University. Horror is the most difficult genre for Fringe theatre to succeed in – the equivalent of passing an A-level in mathematics – but this play makes it a lot further with its horror than any other that I have seen at this year’s Fringe. “Scary Story” has got the right, rare sort of brains and it grades highly.
The story begins with the theatrical commonplace of a house party and the bourgeois unease around a dinner table. It is Halloween and Tom (Alex Jones), a popular horror writer, and Emma (Elspeth McClymont-Cornell), his sensible partner, have invited two old friends, Gary (Will Crane) and Jane (Lizzy Fedorowycz), to their home. In tow are the less reputable Sophie (Selina Jones) and her offputting boyfriend Chad (Josh Stidder ). The guests will have to sing for their supper – Tom has requested that each of them prepare a ghost story.
We might suspect Tom of being rather like Jeffrey Archer. Any material that is left lying carelessly around on the table will be surely squirrelled away for his own novels. Yet the stories that are told to him have been themselves long worn completely smooth from retelling. Jane delivers a version of the creepypasta “The Smiling Man” [which is animated here]. Sophie goes with another, equally venerable campfire tale. We know in our heart of hearts that these supposed horrors actually reconfirm safety and indulge childishness.
When there is gunfire and an intruder breaks into the party, some genuine horror has at last made a formal entrance at the masque. But unlike the Red Death personified, the intruder is unmasked and complicatedly human. There is plausibly nothing supernatural about her presence in the house, where she has been apparently hiding for days on end. She is no doubt an unhinged horror obsessive who has been stalking Tom. The more that she explains herself, the more that she becomes incoherent and stripped of her initially sinister charisma. She is all false, cheery encouragement, as though she is breezing through a corporate training course. A sensitively judged performance here by Rebecca Gray is clearly this play’s load-bearing bracket.
Tom’s own story is never told and it probably cannot be. How can it live up to his towering reputation and confound his sneering companions? Nonetheless, the whole play discreetly drops into the space that should have been filled by Tom’s story. The intruder has been feasibly maddened by reading too many of Tom’s trashy novels (one plot reportedly involves some characters who are trapped on an aeroplane with a cannibal). Perhaps she enacts the kind of metaphysical prank that you encounter in Flann O’Brien’s fiction, in that the childish horror that Tom peddles has finally won some adult freedom and it is now speaking for itself.
It has struck me, however, that she is also a bit like a Fringe critic. She wants her hostages to tell stories and they must be original. She is a fussy eater and she can sniff out when something is wrong. She can destroy bad narratives with her truth bullets.
I walk on to the stage and push her out of the way, grabbing her gun in the process. “The violence is crude and harrowing,” I comment, “and you have clearly lost some of the audience. For my own part, I like the aesthetic very much. It is agreeably edgy and the bloodshed is buttressed by enough sophisticated irony for its heavy-handedness to be excused. I have no more complaints – ah, indeed, I find that I am silenced.” I put the barrel in my mouth and pull the trigger.