It’s Halloween evening at the Brighton Open Air Theatre and what better time for a séance? Even if it has to be a socially distance séance – there’s no hand holding or group glass-moving in these especially strange times. With a bright full moon beaming above and the day’s rain finally over, I turned up in anticipation of my first live theatre since lockdown and the opportunity to embrace the uncanny on this night when the veil is thinnest.
Sent the audience into ripples of laughter, not shivers of fright
The evening was billed as “for adults” and, as we arrived, spookily dressed volunteers whispered warnings of mysterious happenings. Unfortunately, Séance never lives up to this fright hype. Despite a willing audience, many of whom had dressed up for the occasion, the show never captured anyone’s attention long enough to really send chills down the spine. A jump scare worked the first the time, but became less effective upon repetition, and a lack of finesse in the performance meant that it was hard to suspend disbelief.
You don’t attend a séance expecting all new set pieces, but using the same tricks makes it easy to compare against more slick performances with the same format, such as those by the charismatic and quick witted Griffin and Jones. Perhaps the sterile nature of the Covid-secure performance didn’t lend itself to unearthly terror and flights of the imagination, but thoughts remained firmly on sanistiser rather than ectoplasm. Often the focus was on what couldn’t be done (due to Covid), instead of building anticipation for what was to come. Explanations were long winded and off pace, and it was easy for attention to drift – especially when the performance was competing against small firework displays in the near distance.
Our resident Ghost Hunter, the single performer leading the séance, only really seemed to hit his stride when unexpected things happened. An added bonus of holding a séance outdoors on an October evening is that the visiting spirits might choose to embody themselves in a gust of wind, creating supernatural moments where props toppled onto the stage. The on stage volunteers seemed game, but generally unconvinced of the Ghost Hunter’s powers and their hesitant and droll responses sent the audience into ripples of laughter, not shivers of fright. The Ghost Hunter played off this and other unplanned moments of comedy – a BOAT volunteer on occasion needing to spray the stage microphone with sanitiser was another element of joviality - with good humour, but never gained the authority necessary for the performance to be effective.
Nonetheless, it was a certainly a treat to spend Halloween at BOAT, even if the show had fewer tricks than hoped for. All of the Covid-secure measures put in place certainly felt safe and seeing live theatre again after so long added a sense of grandeur to the occasion. Fingers crossed for BOAT’s first ever Christmas programme to go ahead as planned and the opportunity to be back watching performances again soon.