The Hallowe’en Sessions: a review
Something frightful is happening in the basement of the Leicester Square Theatre. Go on down the stairs, take a look. Don’t be put off by the Hallowe’en decorations on the wall. Yes, they look like they’ve been cut out using scissors too blunt for the job, held in shaking hands, but don’t let that trouble you. Descend. It’s happening in there, behind that door. In you go. Take a seat. Oh, I wouldn’t worry about the nurse – she looks at everyone like that – and, anyway, she’s not here for you. No, she’s here to keep the patients in line. That’s right – the patients. No, no, no, don’t worry. They’re not violent… at least not all of the time.
Five patients, attending a most unusual course of group therapy run by the formidable Doctor Myra Lark; that is the set-up for THE HALLOWE’EN SESSIONS, a new horror performance piece running at The Leicester Square Theatre from the 29th of October to the 3rd of November. If you’ve seen any of the Amicus portmanteau movies that inspired THE HALLOWE’EN SESSIONS then you’ll know what to expect. Each patient has a grisly tale to tell and, of course, the group therapy session itself is not entirely what it seems.
There is some considerable writing talent behind the show, including familiar and not-so familiar names. The wrap-around story, which introduces the patients along with Doctor Myra Lark (played with malevolent glee by Sarah Douglas – Ursa in SUPERMAN II), is handled by author and critic Kim Newman. It is, by turns, witty and sinister and sets the tone for what is to follow wonderfully.
Next comes a chilling monologue written by Stephen Volk (GHOSTWATCH, THE AWAKENING) and delivered with commitment and passion by Billy Clarke (recently seen in THE DEVIL’S BUSINESS, directed by Sean Hogan, of whom more later). In the interests of keeping this review spoiler-free I won’t detail the plots of the individual segments, but suffice to say Volk and Clarke very skilfully evoke the events leading up to the character’s mental collapse. You probably won’t look at Mickey Mouse’s hands the same way ever again.
Volk and Clarke’s segment is probably the most heavy-going of the individual tales, although it is not without a sense of black humour. This humour comes to the fore in the next segment, which is written by Paul McAuley (The QUIET WAR trilogy) and delivered by Joshua Mayes-Cooper in the guise of a quintessential Hoxton tosser. McAuley’s script perfectly captures the entitled narcissism of the main character while delivering a story all the more entertaining for its ambiguities. Who is the mysterious Professor Babu, to whom Mayes-Cooper’s character owes a terrible debt? This is a fun slice of urban horror, carried by a nuanced and smart performance from Mayes-Cooper.
The next segment is written by Maura McHugh (JENNIFER WILDE, ROISIN DUBH) and is notable for some strong interplay between Gina Abolins and Sarah Douglas. Abolins plays Vivien Fox, a troubled and meek young woman who finds her inner fury… or should that be her inner Furies? McHugh offers a powerful, angry script and Abolins more than matches it, giving a performance that moves effortlessly from a quiet whisper to a howl of rage. Credit should also go here to the stage direction by Sean Hogan, which subtly mirrors the moods of the main character and helps give this section a real punch.
Critic and author Anne Billson (SUCKERS, the BFI volume on Carpenter’s THE THING) gives us a ghoulish and comedic domestic drama next, a funny two-hander which plays with genre-conventions and audience expectations in a delightful way. Daniel Brocklebank and Holly Lucas appear to be having a great time as an unfaithful husband and his maid, who hails from an Eastern European country with a most amusing name and a neat line in vengeance. This may be the lightest of the stories, but the humour is pitch-black and brilliantly played.
The final story, written by Sean Hogan (who also directs the entirety of THE HALLOWE’EN SESSIONS), brings almost the entire cast together for a tale that begins with a young man and woman going to visit his parents at their remote home, and ends… well, it would be a shame to give anything away. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for anyone. This is the most ambitious of the stories, and it is to the credit of the cast , as well as the writer/director, that it comes off. Holly Lucas and Joshua Mayes-Cooper take the lead roles again and show considerable versatility, as do the rest of the cast, all of whom have to play multiple roles throughout the course of the play.
(I should take a moment to mention Grace Ker, who plays Doctor Lark’s threatening assistant with an air of off-handed cruelty, as well as a key role in this final story.)
And then it’s over. Or, not quite… We find ourselves back in group therapy, where Doctor Myra Lark is ready to reveal the purpose behind her most peculiar practice.
Most of the movies that influenced THE HALLOWE’EN SESSIONS tended to include at least one dud or filler story (even THE DEAD OF NIGHT had that shocker about the two golfers) so it is all the more impressive that the producers have pulled together such a strong set of stories, plus a very strong wraparound. Choosing a favourite is almost impossible. The scripts are uniformly excellent, and the performances extremely likeable. If you love horror then you’re almost guaranteed to have an absolute blast with this.
For a show so influenced by film it seems safe to ask whether THE HALLOWE’EN SESSIONS would make a good movie. Undoubtedly it would, although I do think it would lose some of its uniqueness in the transition. For those of us who grew up with the films of Hammer and Amicus, there’s a real kick to be had in watching one play out right there in the same room. However, it would be great to see these stories reach a wide audience, as they display real affection for the genre, and hark back to a time when horror could be grisly and fun, cerebral and base simultaneously, and it wasn’t all screaming girls wearing vests in what seems to be the unclean interior of a microwave oven.
But that is all academic. Taken on its own merits, THE HALLOWE’EN SESSIONS is a splendid slice of British horror; one that serves as both an affectionate tribute to its past, while showcasing great potential for the future. The notes to the show claim that Doctor Myra Lark will return. Personally, I can’t wait…