Review by Harry Bower
Demons and the Judaism are not two things which are typically closely aligned. In fact, by playwright Rachel Bellman’s own admission, to even find the stories which inspired her Theatre503 debut These Demons, she had to do some deep research. The resulting production is a 95 minute one-act triple hander, which promises dark comedy wrapped up in thrilling horror, in a ‘genre-blending’ family drama. It’s that intriguing description which made me so excited to see a super talented cast in one of London’s most reputable fringe theatres bring it all to life.
Aunt Mira (Ann Marcuson) is a self-proclaimed ‘witch in the woods’, an author with successful books about Jewish demons and exorcisms. She is an outcast within her own family, except for the frequent visits by niece Leah (Olivia Marcus), who finds her fascinating. When Mira is hospitalised thanks to a hate crime in her village, the hot headed seventeen-year-old puts in motion a plan to confront the culprit. Leaving her London home and travelling to Mira’s country cottage alone, Leah sparks panic in the family and is soon joined by an exasperated and tightly wound Danielle (Liv Andrusier), her twenty-two-year-old sister, who’s bunking off from her John Lewis internship to bring her home.
Together the pair bicker and dredge up family history, kitchen sink drama-style. Here lies a distinct clash between sisters in a familiar and strained relationship, one feeling left behind while the other goes to university and starts to grow up. Leah is convinced that the hate crime has unleashed demons which need controlling, and as the piece flashes backward in time, the audience begin to piece together a narrative puzzle. Lines between reality and the supernatural blur, and the sisters find themselves attempting to repair their relationship, in-between performing an exorcism, and chasing each other through the woods.
A strong cast of three produces chemistry which helps the dialogue fizz with witty sarcasm and sass, and the confrontational scenes are among the best written in the piece. Olivia Marcus is the standout performer as the funny but insecure niece, playing with vulnerability and naivety in equal measure. Liv Andrusier appears in These Demons fresh off her award nominations for a star turn in RIDE, and proves again that she is a marvellous character actor. She is skilled in emotionally manipulating the audience with a captivating portrayal of sister Danielle, who gets the show’s only true complete development arc. As the messy but deceptively sane Aunt Mira, Ann Marcuson delivers a spooky edge with just enough mystique to pique interest and just enough maternal instinct to make the audience warm to her.
While the performers are all accomplished, the writing rarely does enough to back them up. Advertised as a thriller, the show takes far too long to reach its crescendo and while the time building the characters isn’t wasted and does result in some interesting outcomes, there are entire scenes which become dry and are uninspiring. At over ninety minutes long it feels like the piece could be cut down by at least fifteen without compromising on the horror elements (horror with a lowercase H). Don’t get me wrong; there are some brilliant comedic interactions, laugh out loud moments, and some genuinely tense and gripping moments, but they are too few and far between. The sometimes ponderous discussions about home life and flashbacks don’t fully explain some things, and overexplain others. Tonally it feels a bit of a mess, and the inclusion of narration in the forest only served to jolt me out of the world that I’d spent over an hour inhabiting.
The set is well designed and the use of lighting to add depth (without spoiling it) was smart. An odd dichotomy presented itself though, with fake rocks wobbling when disturbed by a woollen blanket somewhat distracting set against the spooky surround. The soundtrack was excellent at building tension but did suffer from sharp edges at either end of the edited tracks and what sounded like blown speakers rigged above, muffling the sound effects particularly at the start of the piece.
At its best, These Demons is a wickedly funny and charmingly introspective look at Jewish culture and modern family dynamics. Thematically though, it seems the piece is trying to do too much at once. It’s trying to be a comedy, address trauma, say something about representation and equity, cover hate crime, sexism and antisemitism, explore the role of demons in Jewish culture, and act as a successful horror/thriller. It succeeds wholly on some of those fronts, only partially on others. The final few scenes are brilliant and captured my attention fully; I was invested in the outcomes for each character. It’s just that the journey wasn’t quite as good as the destination.
These Demons plays at Theatre503 until 14 October 2023. For more information and tickets visit https://theatre503.com/whats-on/these-demons/
Photos by Lidia Crisafulli