Blackshaw’s double bill of London Pride by Katie McCullough and Audience with the Ghost Finder by M. J. Starling is a fantastic addition to the programme for this year’s Wandsworth Arts Festival and Fringe.
The set up for McCullough’s London Pride is simple: one room, three characters. Shelley, the landlady and young attractive widower, employs Pavel, a Pole, to help her run the pub. Joe, a regular, objects to this and furiously defends his territory.
In the wake of the recent terrifying local elections results, in which UKIP achieved its best showing at the polls yet, this play takes on a heightened relevance. My initial concern that this was going to be yet another black-and-white depiction of the diligent, much maligned immigrant versus the lazy, territorial Brit was alleviated as the interplay between the characters gradually became more intricate and complex.
Underneath his fun-loving, good-natured exterior, Pavel expertly manipulates both Shelley and Joe. He knows exactly what buttons to press to provoke Joe into a rage (not that it is difficult, granted) and plays with Shelley’s grieving heart, despite being a married man with a child. Joe is a lout, aggressively spouting tabloid rubbish, yet Martin Behrman captures the sad vulnerability of his character. Shelley, still haunted by the loss of her husband Johnny, gives very little away; just enough to suggest that there is a complex, inaccessible labyrinth of emotion underneath that strong-willed façade.
The reality of the deep misery of all three characters is palpable and is intimately brought to life by the capable and skilful actors. The audience are left on a somewhat depressing cliff-hanger and with a sense of intense sadness. So much for London Pride.
After this brutal realism, the audience are transported to 1912 and into the realm of the supernatural with M. J. Starling’s Audience with the Ghost Finder. This original piece by Starling is inspired by William Hope Hodgson’s character, Carnacki the Ghost Finder. Employed to lift a family curse, Carnacki finds himself trapped somewhere between enlightenment and madness, between being thrilled and being terrified.
Hats off to Ellie Pitkin for the slick direction of this piece. Set in the round, the audience are an integral part of the superstitious geometric symmetry, forming a protective circle around the two actors. Ceridwen Smith switches expertly between three different characters: from the authoritative, no-nonsense Mrs Allenby to the affable and adorably Welsh Dogson, via the frilly frocks of the distracted but playful Florence Allenby. Despite the odd stumble over words, Alexander Pankhurst is an excellent fit for Carnacki – very British, clipped, poised but with an edge of eccentricity.
The mystery of the piece is great fun and the pace is pitched perfectly. The challenge always when depicting the supernatural on stage, especially on a tight budget, is how to do so without being desperately naff and disappointing an audience used to the cinematic visual effects of Hollywood. With a few well -chosen sound effects and an attractive sparkly star (I want one!), Blackshaw swerved these problems very effectively.
After more time for development, I can certainly see both London Pride and Audience with the Ghost Finder working very well as stand-alone pieces. But they fitted surprisingly well served together in this delicious double bill. The gritty realism of London Pride was wonderfully complimented by the fun mystery of Audience with a Ghost Finder. In a single evening the audience are transported from the intense claustrophobia of a single room in a pub, to considering the mysteries of the cosmos and the shape-shifting spirits lurking in the abyss.
I would like to end with a word of warning for future audience members – as you’re watching the plays whatever you do, do NOT embark upon a game of match the drink….