Monday, October 17, 2022

The Ghost House – bringing ambitious promenade theatre to fresh audiences (Cahoots at City Side as part of Belfast International Arts Festival) #BIAF22

Once upon a time, long before a retail and leisure park was built at City Side, the highwayman Black Hearted Benjamin lived in a house built on the fields. Legend says that the structure becomes visible once every hundred years. And as luck would have it, if you head down to the shopping mall over the next few weeks, and walk confidently with your ticket towards Home Bargains, you’ll spot a small door, and someone from The Ghost House will come out at the appointed time to meet you and help you track down the story of Benjamin and his ghost.

Anticipation builds as the audience adventurers step through into a long corridor. Background music subtly starts to transition from the retail mall to a world of imagination. We assemble on benches in a tented room, the first of four locations, to be introduced to the legend and the opportunity to cross a time slip into the past. Objects appear, disappear and move of their own volition. Doors open and slam shut. All perfectly normal for a Cahoots show, but it definitely builds the creepy anticipation to the extent that one underage participant (the show is marketed as being suitable for 8+) slips out and heads back to the light.

Through narrative scenes and a very effective extended wordless dance performance, the audience are taken back in time to piece together the clues that will reveal what really happened to Black Hearted Benjamin and his family. A cast of ten pop up at intervals throughout the journey: Hugh W Brown, John Paul Connolly, Maggie Cronin, Harriet Ellis, Allison Harding, Declan King, Caolan McBride, Olivia van Niekerk, Harvey Schorah, Chris Vann.

Behind the scenes, there is an extraordinary level of technical control over dark and light, slipping actors in and out of rooms unnoticed, non-verbally (mis)directing the audience’s attention, actors interacting with video effects, creating multiple layers of focus. Even to the trained eye, at times it’s impossible to be sure what’s live action and what’s not. And the audience meandering through this bespoke piece of promenade theatre in a disused shop unit are never even aware that another group is adventuring through another part of the same production a couple of rooms ahead/behind them.

Few will forget the apprehension of being asked to walk in small groups into a dark corridor that seems to lead to a dead end, lit only by a single candle. Yet, a series of twists and turns later, directed only by the careful positioning of a candle or two, we navigate the darkness and arrive safely in the next location. (Rechargeable LED candles for theatres even have flickering wicks in 2022: we live in amazing times!) The bed stunt – I’ll not spoil the surprise – took me back eight years to Patrick J O’Reilly’s Damage in the 2014 Outburst Queer Arts Festival.

The Ghost House is a big step up from The Grimm Hotel that ran in the same location last Halloween. This time, the audience capacity has doubled and the illusions are much less staged for show but instead are there create a sustained sense of unease and normalised otherworldliness. The use of dance to tell the story is to be applauded, introducing fresh, young audiences to a range of styles of theatre in a friendly, unrarefied and untraditional venue.

Tickets for The Ghost House can be booked up until Monday 31 October through the festival website. Check out the preview post from a few weeks ago to find out what else the festival is serving up between now and 6 November.

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