As we enter the shadowy theatre of Assembly Hall we see an imposing set of gallows upon which a young man sits shackled as a lone pianist plays quiet discordant music. It's a suitably atmospheric and haunting set up for a show that revels in the aesthetic of late Victorian mysticism and magic, and the start of a fabulously creepy and slick new play.
I know many productions that would kill for the mood and sense of style Velvet Evening Seance creates for its audience.
Velvet Evening Seance sees the audience placed in the shoes of a jury, there to decide the fate of one James McGregor, a Victorian medium accused of murdering his brother. Over the course of the piece we listen to James evidence his purported innocence and relay his life story, along with the events that lead to the tragic death of his brother.
The show's script, written by renowned playwright Suzzie Miller, does a fabulous job of pulling you into the world Victorian spiritualism and dark magic. The show feels period appropriate and it’s easy to imagine you've stepped back a hundred years, finding yourself in the smoky back room of a parlour telling ghost stories. Moreover the script does a wonderful job of remaining ambiguous, the story is only relayed through James’ grief-ridden perspective of the events, and his fanatical belief in the existence of the ghosts he and his brother spoke with, to colour his account making him an incredibly unreliable narrator. It’s a testament to the confidence of the script that it trusts the audience to make their own conclusions, not mollycoddling them by simply explaining exactly what is fact, delusion or a complete lie. Through this exploration of a true believer in the existence of ghosts the show also provides an insightful study in the motivations and fears that drive people into the arms of those who claim they can bridge the gap between living and dead.
The story is enhanced by the fabulous performance of James by our sole actor. He is able to bring the necessary energy and stamina to the role to hold the audience's attention, whilst still being able to show his vulnerability and make us sympathise with James, a man who is continually overshadowed by his older and better brother.
What really makes the show come alive, however, is the general production design. The beautiful set of a large set of gallows provides a suitable macabre and gothic backdrop to accentuate the dark and creepy mood of the piece, whilst clever projections, illusions and even the odd magic trick all highlight the shows themes of trickery, deception and the line between what is true and what we simply wish was.
My one qualm about the show is its length. The piece is about 15 minutes longer than it needs to be, and in the final stretch it really begins to drag and lose the very captivating atmosphere it worked so hard to cultivate throughout. The script could do with a trim to remove the more superfluous moments, particularly the overlong court speeches from the last third of the play.
Despite this the show is still a treat to watch, and I know many productions that would kill for the mood and sense of style Velvet Evening Seance creates for its audience. For a ghostly hour of chills and illusions this really is a show to see.