Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.
BeLT’s Very Still and Hard to See builds a dark ambience from a thoughtful script by Steve Yockey. While the premise is an encounter with an external manifestation of evil, as the show progresses it becomes clear that it is actually an exploration of the evil already existing within ourselves. At the Etcetera Theatre.
Fabled architect Buck Mason (Stevie Hughes) is building a hotel in some hot, unspecified American city when he finds himself in a sinkhole. Not alone – there is a demon in the sinkhole with him. The Obake, played with sinister relish by Julie Binysh, makes a deal with Mason: she will let him live, for now. She will even grant him his darkest and most secret desire. “People always think it will be love or money,” she explains. “It’s never love or money.” And Mason’s desire is dark indeed, an unspeakable appetite voiced with breathy urgency by the robed and hooded chorus behind the demon. In exchange for his life and his depraved fantasy, Mason is to allow the Obake free rein in the hotel. It will be her playground.
What follows is a series of vignettes depicting the stains left on people’s lives by encounters with the hotel, a hot red trail of madness, pain and death. The strongest of these is Pauline Armour’s Edith in “An unfortunate storm-related mishap,” in which it is revealed that the charming retiree before us, not a hair out of place, once allowed herself to be overcome by a powerful impulse of violence – and got away with it. Also enjoyable is Fiona Cullen’s darkly humorous turn in “Hearts & flowers” as Ginger, a damned soul seeking redemption who just can’t help indulging in the temptation of eating her potential lovers. Cullen is strongly supported by Shikigami (following spirits) Kyle Cluett and Tamsin Fellowes, and potential paramour Violet (Samantha Pressdee).
The encounters are subtly interwoven, with the demon in Betty’s (Debbie Griffiths) dream in “Bleach & other household cleaners” turning up in Edith’s monologue, and a much remarked-on similarity between Jasper (Josh Lawson) in “Dreadful parlour games” and Franklin the elevator operator in “A personal account of the renovation.” The final vignette, “Above ground,” shows us the end result of Mason’s bargain: the hotel is about to be demolished due to structural instability and his granddaughter Simone, played with a mounting ferocity by Alison Green, is there to see it go down.
The production is staged adeptly with all the performers showing a real facility with movement. Sensual sighing and groaning by the chorus during the scenes where evil is performed highlight the uncomfortable proximity between violence and sexual gratification. The fact that the performers’ voices are disembodied as they are covered in their robes makes these moments all the more eerie. Director Dan Armour’s design makes a potent impact with minimal costumes and props.
The actors are very strong in the humorous moments, but on occasion struggle to make the transition from funny to terrifying. There are periods where I find myself gripped by the frightening pictures they conjure up, but others where the visceral urgency just isn’t quite there. In fairness, it is easily 40 degrees in the tiny first-story Etcetra theatre, and the actors spend the majority of the show cloaked in heavy full-length robes with face-covering hoods – it’s a wonder they don’t just melt into puddles. Also, it may be a little cruel on our part to have sent the American reviewer to the show, as it is pretty much inevitable for me to say the accents are uneven. Some appear to be modeled on the vocal stylings of fast-talking 1930s crime comedies.
The remarkable thing about the final scene featuring Buck Mason’s granddaughter Simone is that it becomes clear the Obake, having promised Mason his darkest secret desire, ultimately did nothing to facilitate his descent into depravity: just like Edith, Mason already had the means to act on his baser impulses and it was he alone who chose to proceed. BeLT’s tagline for the show is “demons are forever.” If this is so, it is because they are inescapably within us, not out there somewhere.