Thrillers are all the rage right now (the originator of this trend was Ghost Stories, which started at the Lyric Hammersmith and then swept into the Duke of York Theatre) and lots of West End producers are currently digging around for this perceived theatrical gold. Some savvy programming, then, from those at Southwark Theatre, who have commissioned a Terror 2010 event. They’ve also got some names with real clout on board, including Mark Ravenhill and Neil La Bute, both of whom are known for writing current, dangerous, frightening plays. But this collection of works is playful not powerful, fun rather than disturbing and though there are some laughs – more often than not for the tight-faced zombies – they aren’t the type to send shudders down the spine.
Ravenhill both wrote and directed the opening play, ‘The Exclusion Zone’, which is certainly the best of this clashing and diluted collaboration. It is set in the countryside: a prime location for Lost-like sound effects and lots of frightened murmuring in the dark. Two not-yet men meet on an abandoned hilltop, having originally ‘clicked’ on an internet dating site. They flirt, prowl and generally spook each other out.
A ghost story follows. Pete (Sam Swann), the initiator of this meet, confesses to James (Kieran Knowles) that he once lured a former lover to this very same spot and killed him. It was a mercy-murder, though, since his lover had a Chernobyl-linked cancer. The audience is never encouraged to take this tale seriously – both the actors have a pronounced, comic style of delivery and everything is knowingly camped up – and, when James admits to taking the piss, it’s no great shock.
But then follows Ravenhill’s real shock. I won’t reveal the plot-twist, but the violence is notched up tenfold and what was once a jesting, jolting piece, hardens into something that feels closer to film noir. Everything becomes bathed in darkness. But, with the violence and fear at its highest pitch, James spurts out a vitriolic monologue about the misery of his 9 to 5 job. These modern-day miseries are not hinted at earlier on and the monologue feels suspiciously like last minute box-ticking – there to fulfil the requirements of a Terror 2010 play, rather than a dramatically meaningful result of careful storytelling.
Perhaps I’m taking it all too seriously – but it is hard, when serious themes are consciously inserted into a play, to analyse Ravenill’s, and his collaborators’, works as skits rather than genuine play attempts. There is certainly a playful feel to the night overall: Sarah Louise Young performs glib and gory cabaret numbers in between the plays, which actually work very well – but the themes of these plays, as well as their central and invariably disturbing moments, are surely meant to be taken seriously.
It is the kind of awkward combination that makes for some moments that seem in bad taste. Neil La Bute understands what scares people and does occasionally frighten with his play, ‘The Unimaginable’, but the way he generates fear feels gratuitous. We open on a near-empty stage, throbbing in the half light: an open toy chest lies centre stage, with fading baby dolls spilling over the top, their eyes glazed over and their bodies twisted at painful angles. It is odd, still and unsettling. A dark-cloaked man then enters and admonishes the audience for abandoning their children at home, leaving them vulnerable to dangerous, floating figures, such as himself.
Over and over again, this rasping man accuses the audience of neglect and invites the spectators to imagine their children being kidnapped. The script seems to suggest that child-kidnapping is a pretty common occurrence and ends with the threat, ‘Who knows, it may already be too late…’ Plays about current fears are frightening because they tap into present, palpable concerns and dangers. But plays that suggest these kind of ‘unimaginable’ acts happen all the time actually alleviate the fear, making this dreaded act a common, unfocused threat, lacking the kind of local and believable detail that really has the potential to shock.
There is a cheapening of the things that truly terrify us that sucks the fear out of this event. Again, no doubt a lot of this was meant to be silly rather than shocking – but when combining fear and fun, one needs to pick the subject matter a little more carefully than this.
Till 31 October 2010