Review: Tales of Terror

ANGELA LIU: ‘Despite having its moments, overall the performance was less Tales of Terror and more Tales of Tedium.’

ADC Disney Holyman Tales of Terror The Happiness Patrol

Tuesday 25th – Wednesday 26th, 7.45 at the ADC Theatre 

The promotional leaflet for Tales of Terror waxes lyrical about withered hands, rickety scarecrows, hideous creatures and locks of hair. With the exception of the hair, which turned out just to be on the narrator’s head and really not scary, none of the above featured in tonight’s production.

In fact, it wasn’t so much a production as a glorified story-time. Tales of Terror was a one-man narrative, with Philip Holyman recounting four little-known gothic tales. Unfortunately, there is a reason why these tales are little-known: they are boring. The first half offered such rich pickings as a ghostly colonel, a ghostly face, a ghostly ghost, and something else which was presumably ghostly but frankly by that point I had stopped caring about life itself.

The script was not without its linguistic charms and could often veer towards the poetically engaging, but the plots were either breathtakingly banal or laughable – sometimes literally, as with the line: ‘I approached and saw…the figure of a gigantic cat!’ which elicited a bark of laughter from an audience member. Holyman’s memory deserves plaudits and he never faltered in his diction, yet his miscellany of characterisations, from working-class lift operator to crazed alcoholic to Japanese bard, all channelled Derek Jacobi reading Shakespeare – a problem exacerbated by having only one narrator.

When a play is so unexciting that you’d rather think about the plausibility of the theory of consensus in 1940s British polity and economy, you know it’s in trouble.

The second half was more enjoyable – both Holyman and his material picked up and it was shorter. The focus was on one tale, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat. I had a little time to ponder what the auctorial adjective was for Poe (Poe-esque? Povian? Polish?) before being genuinely hooked by the dark tale of alcoholism and cruelty. If the most gruesome moment was somewhat marred by the vocal reaction of one audience member (‘Whuh?’), Holyfield infused his manner with a slightly hammy yet effectively eerie creepiness that suited well the enigmatic nature of the tale. 

Presumably, the aim was to create an atmosphere of supernatural minimalism: the stage was bare, the narrator was dressed in black and lit with a spotlight from below, and blasts of what sounded at times like discordant Disney music separated each tale. I appreciate the effect that The Happiness Patrol was trying to achieve, but perhaps it might have been more successful in a more compact arena than the ADC. Either way, the only time I jumped all night was after I had left the theatre and my companion yelled ‘Oh my God!’ in my ear because he’d spotted an extremely fat person.

Tales of Terror bravely walked the thin line between effectively simple and simply dull, and unfortunately teetered over the edge towards the latter. Perhaps this was more down to the incompatibility of the genre with its setting than to any failings on the part of Holyman, but the promised spine-tingling scares were simply not delivered. The man directly behind my left shoulder’s heavy breathing was more frightening than anything Holyman could throw at me. Despite having its moments, overall the performance was less Tales of Terror and more Tales of Tedium