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Review: Ghost Stories by Candlelight (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Review by Rosie Holmes


I can’t think of anywhere more atmospheric to stage a ghostly play than the candlelit Sam Wannamaker playhouse at London’s Globe Theatre. High Tide’s Ghost Stories by Candlelight plays the final shows of its UK tour at this wonderful and unique theatre, with a set of stories that are set firmly in the present, taking place in different places and with different people, over the course of a single night observed by a single falcon.

High Tide, based in the East of England and celebrating the creatives of the local area. For this piece the company commissioned four writers to create ghost stories set in the present day, subverting our expectations of the usual Victorian ghost stories we may be used to, especially towards the festive season. The three individual stories are sewn together by a beautiful and haunting folk song, written by Georgia Shackleton, which imagines a peregrine falcon collecting three individual items to create a violin which will lift an evil curse.

We begin with a tale by Nicola Werenowska, performed as a monologue. We see a mum take her teenage daughter to a Norfolk beach, where they visit an abandoned beach hut that holds many secrets. Next up is Shamser Sinha’s ‘Sacrifice’, again about a mother and daughter. This time, the mother, struggling with grief, takes her daughter into the woods to complete a last penance, only for things to take a terrifying twist. Finally, the Peregrine falcon takes us over to Romford for Kelly Jones’s ‘Run’ in which a young girl is guided home on a busy Friday night by her murdered friend in what becomes a very feminist ghost tale.

At a glance, all three tales are wildly different, and therefore the connecting thread of the falcon seeing all three events taking place on the same night across the East of England adds to the intensity of the tales. However, we do begin to see many similarities between the three stories and the themes they explore. East Anglia, in which High Tide is based, is home to writer M.R. James and is often referred to as the home of the ghost story, yet unlike James’ stories these are set resolutely in the present, thus surprising the audience in the relatable anguish all three stories focus on and bring to the supernatural realm, maybe making them all that bit spookier than tales set centuries ago.

A small cast of three perform the stories, including Loren O’Dair, who is haunting and ethereal as our peregrine falcon. Katie Cherry performs an exceptionally powerful monologue as a young woman, alone at night, angry but funny, vulnerable but witty. Elizabeth Crarer also performs a monologue in the beach hut and is able to create an astonishingly three-dimensional character in only the twenty minutes or so spent with her. Both Crarer and Cherry also show their talent for regional accents, transforming completely within seconds.

In all three pieces, light almost becomes an extra character. Charlotte Henrey’s lighting design is simple yet inspired. In Sacrifice our two characters are followed by flashlights, while in Run, Cherry’s character is lit by lamps which follow her every move. This use of lighting is meticulously choreographed and is perfectly executed throughout. Certainly, in every piece, lighting adds to the suspense, tension and excitement. Set design is simple too, save for the lights themselves. A few small bird puppets are used, perhaps less effectively, as they are waved across a red light, but perhaps, it was my side-on view that meant I couldn’t appreciate the full effect. However, simple set design is a smart choice here, when playing in the atmospheric candlelit Sam Wannamaker playhouse, simplicity is best.

While the writing is perhaps not consistent throughout, High Tide’s take on ghost stories is one that was certainly surprising, interestingly subverting common tropes associated with the genre and providing a new take on the ghostly tale that proved utterly enthralling. Perhaps I would have liked a few more spooks but maybe the real scare is in High Tide’s central ethos in raising awareness of climate change, and the note we end on, that human beings and not the supernatural are responsible for the greatest horrors of the world.

Ghost Stories by Candlelight plays at Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, Globe Theatre until Saturday 25th November 2023. Tickets and more information here - Ghost Stories by Candlelight | HighTide

Photos by Fourth Wall Photography

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