Nursing homes are unsettling places at the best of times and Theatre of the Damned have turned this real-life anxiety into a haunting piece of theatre, using classic horror effects to explore the mental disintegration of an old man. As their company name suggests, Theatre of the Damned specialise in horror theatre, but it’s not necessarily the kind you might expect. Anyone expecting blood or gore will be disappointed. This is horror drama in the style of Hitchcock, with a hint of an old ghost story.
The set pieces and lighting are utilised well throughout to provide good, old-fashioned scares. There are plenty of frights, but the success of the production mostly depends on how overactive your own imagination is. The piece begins subtly, easing us in with gentle laughs, depicting the relationship between the old man and his daughter. Their interaction is unnervingly realistic and, as the dialogue becomes more intense, suspense is gradually builds up. What starts out as a subtle psychological drama soon begins to descend into something even more sinister, if a little melodramatic.
The success of this piece relies not on cheap thrills, but on the nuanced acting performances. In particular, Jeffrey Mayhew is utterly convincing as Clifford, the old man haunted by his past and his own fragmented mind. John Garfield-Roberts is also very frightening as the electrician, switching with ease between an amiable persona one minute, to a terrifying figment of Clifford’s own mind the next. Scarlet Sweeney is relatable as Clifford’s daughter, Susan, and Stephanie Walls adds a touch of humour to the production as the annoyingly cheery and patronising nurse. It’s because the acting is rooted in reality that the drama is even more unsettling.
The ending is unexpected and abrupt - it comes from nowhere and almost made me jump out of my seat. It’s certainly an effective ending in its ability to shock an entire audience out of their wits. The shock-factor at the time is undeniable but, retrospectively, the ending doesn’t seem as effective. It leaves the play with an unfinished feeling and, though this may be part of its point, it also undercuts the subtlety of the rest of the drama.
For all its thrills and shocks, the images that haunted me afterwards were the ones we don’t find in horror films, but lurking distinctly closer to home – an old man, for instance, forgetting his daughter’s name, or hiding away the photograph of his dead wife. There’s always the uneasy sense that we might all find ourselves in a similar situation one day and it’s this that makes the play far more frightening.
This is a troubling, compelling play that is let down slightly by the company’s constant need to frighten the audience. There are things far more unsettling than loud noises in the dark and Theatre of the Damned know this – it’s just a shame they can’t resist that last attempt to make us all jump.