master of the English ghost story, M R James, once described Irish author
Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu as “absolutely in the first rank” among
supernatural storytellers. His short story
This proved to be a genuinely chilling hour and another success for this vibrant Edinburgh company.
Sophie Good’s adaptation retains that feeling well enough, though most of the details have been changed. Our central character is now Edinburgh-based genomics researcher James Stevenson, who is working all-hours on what he believes could be a game-changing breakthrough. This alone puts strains on his relationship with boyfriend Andy, who is (for the most part) willing to support James in his career. But we’re told early on that this isn’t a love story, that “whatever he [James] got involved with consumed him completely”, and we—as audience—are put in the role of hearing their individual confessions as James’s deteriorating behaviour is matched by Andy’s increasing frustration at being unable to help the man he loves.
While Good’s treatment of the Monkey veers towards the psychological explanation, the presence of an animalistic Sands Stirling in the room and sometimes scampering among the audience, plays sufficiently with the supernatural to stay unnerving. Not that there’s any time for us to relax; Joe Walsh, as Andy, is the first to appear and is already agitated and stressed out by what’s happened. This unfortunately means that neither the flashback to their first meeting nor their early bonding over banana-flavoured pancakes feel sufficiently tonally different from the anguish of the present.
Calum Ferguson as James is a genuinely fragile figure who is emotionally collapsing into himself, his delicate frame contrasted with Stirling’s burly Monkey and even Walsh’s Andy, whose own emotional journey is somewhat truncated but none-the-less heartbreaking. Uncredited, producer Lara Wauchope has little to do beyond providing a succession of one-note, plot-advancing “characters”, but she imbues each with vocal distinction and the right level of energy.
Good’s script still feels a tad loose—for example, there wasn’t sufficient thematic justification within the story for the spectral figure still being a monkey—did any of James’s genetic research involve primates, for example? Tonally, some scenes also felt too tonally the same, though director Jack Elliot deserves praise for utilising nursery rhymes and riffs on the “hear no evil” monkey to ensure an unsettling atmosphere. His use of sound and lighting, designed by James Renwick, (in a quite different space from the company’s usual home) was also highly effective. All in all, this proved to be a genuinely chilling hour—and I don’t just mean because of the freezing venue—and another success for this vibrant Edinburgh company.