True crime is something of a nomadic genre. Aside from comedy, no other type of narrative storytelling seems so malleable that it can make equally wild successes out of books, Netflix documentaries, and podcasts within the same handful of years. Occupying the murky intersection of investigative journalism, forensic psychology, and gothic horror, it follows the deliberate pace of a police procedural whilst also offering sparks of shock at the depravity that seemingly ordinary and unremarkable human beings are capable of. Researched, written, and performed by Sasha Roberts and Tom Worsley, and directed by Stephen Sobal c/o Bête Noire Productions, Father of Lies brings its chosen true crime horror story (of Anselm Neumann, a priest who lost his wife Abigail to childbirth complications, began reporting ghostly visions, and wound up committing a horrific murder) to a platform that is strangely devoid of both those genres: theatre.
The notable exception to this rule is The Woman in Black, the long-running, oft-studied adaptation of Susan Hill’s haunted house story of the same name. Whether deliberately or not, we find shadows and echoes of it in Father of Lies: a cot reportedly being rocked by a ghost; the devastation of sudden, violent bereavement and the ensuing tragic path taken by those left behind; an isolated rural house; the protagonist witnessing things the audience does not, leaving their imaginations to project their fears onto the stage. Unlike film, there are no editing tricks and camera shot maneuvers to scare the living daylights out of a theatregoer. Everything unfolds in a single space, in real time, with no screen to separate illusion from reality, horror from relief.
Having said that, because the events of Father of Lies are set in 1973, it also harks back to a sub-genre of horror films from the seventies and early eighties that cast the abstract spells of horror onto the most ordinary and unremarkable domestic landscapes. The show pitches itself as “Making a Murderer meets Rosemary’s Baby” but, particularly with the choice of a vintage pram and a carousel slide projector as the main props, I’m also reminded of Dennis Potter’s TV series Brimstone and Treacle (1976), Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), William Freidkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror (1979). Even of those films that are partly based on an allegedly true story, there is some comfort to be had from remembering that the stories are principally just that: we can leave them behind without having to co-exist in the same timeline where those horrific events really took place. Father of Lies offers no such comfort.
There are so many different moments of horror in this docudrama that there’s very much something for everyone — most of the horror deriving from the dearth of any rational explanations behind them. We have the unsettling revelation that, before meeting Anselm, Abigail abruptly fled from her home in Israel to Germany, evaded detection for three years, and somehow wound up on a church pew looking almost unrecognizable; whatever happened during those lost years, she took to the grave. Later, there’s the gruesome body horror of Abigail’s labour, as Roberts and Worsley report how she screamed throughout the entire car journey to the hospital and was sitting slumped in a pool of her own blood by the time they arrived, eventually bleeding to death after eighteen hours of uninterrupted hemorrhaging. On top of that we have the ominous circumstances of their son’s birth: over one hundred days premature, pronounced dead only to come back to life many minutes later and gradually, painfully, recovering against all medical odds. And don’t even get me started on Anselm’s reported encounters with Abigail’s ghost, his bereavement-turned-psychotic break, or the possible influence of occult worship on all of the above.
As Roberts puts it in the play’s press release, ‘horror films and true crime documentaries allow us to experience extreme emotions in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real. Moreover, by following an investigation, audiences can play “detective” and see if they can figure out “whodunit”’. I wouldn’t say this notion of audience investigation is exactly new to theatre – from Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap to the aforementioned Woman in Black, we’re pretty well versed in the thrill of chasing a definitive resolution to a play’s central mystery – but what does make Father of Lies stand out on this front is its postmodern embrace of cold cases and their inherent ambiguity.
Roberts’s and Worsley’s respectful passion and curiosity about this diligently researched case is infectious. I credit them for condensing a huge amount of information – geographical, chronological, familial, historical – into a single hour, their recital fluid and engaging. Like Phoebe Judge’s dulcet tones on the podcast Criminal and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s compelling style in her half-memoir, half-case file The Fact of a Body, the pair’s delivery is less like a TED talk and more like a gripping tale around a Halloween campfire. Their comic, charming start (in what I’ll call “presenter mode”) puts us at ease which, considering the house lights are on for over half the show and we sit in a horseshoe formation, constantly aware of one another but all determined to get swept away by this creepy story, is an eminently smart decision on their part.
The interactive element also means that each show is tailored to its particular audience: on 28 February, we hear one woman’s story of her stay in an elderly friend’s house, and how she encountered a “polite little old man who doffed his cap at me” on her way to the bathroom. Her friend lived alone; her husband had died years earlier. It’s an effective way of keeping things fresh, not only for any audience members who return for a second or third outings, but also for Roberts and Worsley as presenters. Interactivity is a staple of the horror genre when performed live in other settings (think ghost trains and haunted houses), but here, to my pleasant surprise, its purpose is always to reassure, never to frighten.
Not that the performers need any help with provoking terror — the facts (such as they are) of the case speak for themselves. The most horrific and disturbing moments happen in the reenactments, in the consciously theatrical and dramatized moments between Anselm and Kurt that involve no interactivity with the audience whatsoever. We are physically close to these characters (I have to tuck my feet in so I don’t accidentally trip either of them up) but also narratively detached. Just as with any true crime account, we can exhaustively plunder the reports, the handwritten letters from a prison cell and the crime scene photographs, but we will always be on the outside of the story, because we did not live it. The horrors may be presented to us live, but we can never truly live through them.
Father of Lies has done sell-out runs at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe and London Horror Festival, as well as this run at The Vaults Festival, so if you’ve missed out this time, never fear — like a ghost, it’s bound to reappear in appropriately spooky settings once again.
https://vaultfestival.com/whats-on/father-of-lies/ Accessed 01.03.2018
https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2018/father-lies-review-vaults-london/?login_to=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.thestage.co.uk%2Faccounts%2Fusers%2Fsign_up.popup Accessed 01.03.2018
http://londonhorrorsociety.co.uk/creating-live-horror-theatre/?platform=hootsuite Accessed 01.03.2018