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Saturday, 10 December 2016

Theatre Review: The Spirit Whistle

The Spirit Whistle is showing at the Tiverton Oak Room until the 17th of December 2016. This review was commissioned by Tiverton Community Radio, and was originally published on their website.

 dimly lit, Victorian church with a ghostly pipe organ, Tiverton’s Oak Room is the perfect backdrop for a spooky, supernatural romp. It is perhaps no surprise that Mid Devon based theatre company Iron Moon Arts handpicked this venue for their latest haunting production, The Spirit Whistle.

The play is writer and director Matthew Lawrenson’s loose adaptation of Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, a ghost story by genre-defining author M. R. James. The production honours this chilling tale while injecting folklore and myths from the Devon landscape.

Much like the story from which it draws inspiration, this production is in many ways a return to the archetypal ghost story. Yet, through an inventive blend of rib-tickling pastiche and a tailor-made script, the play is a delightfully unique experience.

After taking our seats to disconcertingly upbeat parlour music echoing from the cavernous ceiling, the show begins. We are transported to a 1920’s hotel.  The play is set right here in Tiverton, and Pulman’s script is packed with nods to the region’s history from the get go. Immediately the actors relish in hammy, old-timey theatrics.

Not wholly owing to its hotel setting, the humour is at times in the vein of Faulty Towers, with the cast demonstrating a knack for physical comedy. Grace Simpson (Sarah White), a frustrated proprietor of the hotel, dances and quarrels with her guests, while the rhythmic interplay between the sceptical Professor Parkins (Richard Pulman) and the gullible Captain Deveril (Philip Kingslan John) is played with charming flamboyance.

We are introduced to Tom Sett (Benjamin Akira Tallamy), an ostentatious spiritual medium who claims to contact the dead with the aid of a large, mysterious box, which sits ominously on the stage as our curiosity builds.

While the play is largely a comic farce, packed with witty asides to the audience and fourth wall breaking gags, its humour is underpinned by something genuinely sinister. The aftermath of the First World War looms heavily over the production, and it somehow manages to create an ominous atmosphere despite its comic absurdity.

While this production has only five actors, the Oak Room itself can almost be considered a sixth cast member. The imposing, high-ceilinged hall is used to great effect. The cast traverse the oval balcony and walk amongst the audience, expertly making use of the historical atmosphere around them.

With the imaginative use of lighting cues, puppetry, sound design, projected images and Luke Jeffery’s film footage, the play delivers a multifaceted, spine-chilling escapade. At one notable point, we are spooked with a technique that would not be out of place in the West End’s The Woman in Black. Playing with our expectations, we are surprised by the play’s contrasting horror and humour.

Deceptively light-hearted, and at times terrifying, The Spirit Whistle is a playful homage to a classic ghost story, lovingly crafted for a beautiful venue.

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