Extempore Theatre has taken the ‘Weird Tales Magazine’ as their inspiration for this particular production. Popular in the 1920s times the magazine was renowned for publishing weird and wacky horror stories that reinvented the genre for the modern age. In this improvised stage version, the three actors recreate three different short stories using audience inspiration.
The first story, The Asp and The Aspen, revolves around a lumberjack. Dick Denby (Andrew Pugsley) hires a novice, Thomson (Alex Bartram), to teach him the ways of tree surgery. “Some folk said he communed with the trees, others that he just chopped them down.” Thomson finds out from Denby that, “You can’t cut down a tree that does not wish to be cut.” Considering this is entirely improvised using audience suggestions, it is an incredibly erudite depiction. The actors narrate the story as if it had been written by an author with literary prowess, adding colour and detail that makes it come alive. All three know how to commit to the writing, providing suspense at appropriate moments which in turn amplifies the impending terror.
The second story feels more Victorian in creation. A member of the audience chooses a photo from a book and as such Cat’s Eyes is born. Jack Johnson (Bartram) is a writer recently moved back to the city into a new, albeit slightly decayed, house. In typical Victorian style, the lights flicker and the phone line frequently cuts in and out, which of course adds to the overall effect. “If you have any problems, give me a call. If the call’s the problem you’ll just have to shout” as Jack’s brother Bernard (Adam Megiddo) so eloquently says. Jack is left alone in the house, with the storm raging outside and only a sinister cat for company. This particular tale is once again expertly performed; it uses the troubled past of the main protagonist to narrate his psychological demise. The whole tale has an Edgar Allan Poe feeling about it.
The final story lets the whole show down a little. Michael feels like a more modern horror story, not dissimilar to Paranormal Activity. Perhaps it is because this kind of horror is more prolific in today’s society, but the piece doesn’t have the impact it should. It seems more obvious – the lights go out, the ghost appears, he can be heard in the white noise on a track that DJ Dan (Megiddo) is mixing for his record label. Pictures move and crack, both Dan and neighbour Archie (Bartram) get thrown across the room in a telekinetic display of ectoplasmic rage. The horror here is too sudden, too physical, with little build-up or psychological foreplay.
The idea to improvise horror stories is ingenious and something that this group do ever so well. Lighting, sound and acting combine here into some sinister pieces of work.
The Society of Strange plays at C venue (venue 34) until August 30 as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For more information, visit the Fringe website.