Horror despite its potential has often found itself avoided by theatre practitioners despite thriving on screen and in video-gaming. However, the wealth of opportunities the intimate atmosphere of a theatre can provide are rarely explored. Danse Macabre is an emerging company specifically created to explore a darker side of theatre and their latest production Nightmares in Progress showcases some original work the company has been developing in London’s atmospheric Old Red Lion Theatre. The core creative company are formed of Joseph Willis, Sarah Warham, and Sam Esseme.
Nightmares in Progress consists of two very different horror pieces relying predominantly on storytelling than visuals or jumps. The stage set on bare floorboards with limp lamps dangling from the ceiling is incredibly atmospheric and not gimmicky. Paper is strewn over the floor and a body wrapped in a sleeping bag lies centre stage. Connecting the evening are the very humourous comperes Thomas Barry and Lawrence Cuthbert who expertly ease the tension of the pieces with lighthearted comedy (with a sinister edge of course). The first Every Breath You Take (named after the Sting song with the same title) hones in on a horror writer as she tries to repeat the huge success of her first book. Sam (Ruby Sevink-Johnston) finds herself trapped in a destructive loop as her mind gets to grips with the story she needs to tell. The monologue is only interrupted by intermittent voicemail messages by her agent Harriet (Sarah Warham) who reinforces the deadline of the publisher (to little avail).
The second in the double bill is The Sandman, a much more immersive experience than the first. Without providing too many spoilers the audience sits in a total blackout. The audience listens avidly to Mr Buchanan (Lawrence Cuthbert) as he too sits in a darkened room where he has signed up to insomnia therapy. Unable to see anything Mr Buchanan is talked through his nightmares by the voice of his therapist Dr Elspeth Grove (Emma Whitworth) as he seeks to cure his insomnia. There are no refunds. Things go downhill quite rapidly and his “therapy” swiftly becomes something more sinister. As the audience/cult we are invited along to participate and in the darkness objects are passed along to mimic the experience undergone by the unsuspecting Mr Buchanan. While the spacing of the venue made this slightly difficult for the cast to circulate the concept is extremely unique and has the potential for further development adding something different to what I imagine we were all expecting. It is certainly ominous when you go to a play and on the door they ask you to take a bin bag and a wet wipe.
The writing deserves a particular special mention. While with further workshopping the pacing has the potential to grow and create more tension there is something quite easy going about the script. It develops with a quiet intensity making the climax of both pieces appear almost out of nowhere. With horror in particular it is so easy for a script to be over flowery to the verge of excess, whereas Joseph Willis’ script flows with a naturalness. Horror Writer Sam in the first of the two pieces thoroughly engages the audience, a difficult feat for a solo performer in a nearly thirty minute monologue. Her internal performance masterfully depict a deteriorating mental state with finesse and delicacy. A lot of the horror here is implied rather than overt which keeps viewers lulled into an eerie calmness; something is not right but writer-director Joseph Willis gives nothing away too soon.
The biggest problem with horror theatre is a lack of new writing and grassroot productions. There are plenty of Victorian ghost stories and adaptations from books (and even films) but it is quite rare to see a horror production written primarily for the stage. The Woman in Black based on the book of the same name has long held a “spooky” dominance in in London’s West End although it is certainly starting to feel tired it highlights what can be done on a minimal budget with some well times door slams. Only last year a play based on the film The Exorcist arrived in theatreland and was widely considered a dismal failure, struggling to sell seats and acquiring critical disdain. What seems to be missing is an investment in brand new horror writing. Danse Macabre is clearly seeking to change that and if this first installment is anything to go by we can expect more original productions.
Surprisingly horror’s natural counterpart is humour (as long as people are not laughing at the wrong bits). Film-makers in particular have blurred the lines into a brand new genre of horror-comedy ranging from Sharknado to Shaun of the Dead. The idea of a black comedy is not exactly new and while it is popular in fringe theatre very little has made it into traditional theatrical form taking up some of the country’s most prominent theatre spaces. Immersive tour-style experiences such as The Dungeons combine the two and there is clearly a nationwide appetite for a more lighthearted branch of horror that doesn’t fit the age-old conception. In film the recent hit of Get Out has highlighted that horror is by no means a static genre and risk taking can lead to commercial and critical success. Numerous theatre productions have claimed themselves to be the “scariest ever seen” but horror as a genre is capable of so much more than simply scaring you as something like Get Out was able to demonstrate. As we are told at the beginning of Nightmares Danse Macabre plan to distort our realities and challenge what we believe to be real. In a few very meta moments our comperes remind us that they are not who they say they are, but rather two actors taking on those roles, yet we took it without question when we are told their names.
It seems evident that only the bravest of theatre companies can perform horror and braver still to write and develop their own. What the theatre landscape is missing at the moment are more homegrown companies like Danse Macabre who are willing to try something new with a beautiful simplicity. Horror doesn’t need to be big budget or be dripping in gore to leave an audience with a deep sense of unease.
Nightmares in Progress was performed on 29 January at The Old Red Lion Theatre. You can find out more about the company and their upcoming productions here.