From the get-go, it is clear that tonight’s performance of Phantasmagoria will be unlike most other theatre. We are ushered into the space by characters immediately recognisable as having been plucked from the surrealist gothic narratives of Lewis Carroll, whose poem of the same name tonight’s performance is based upon. The audience is welcomed into something unnervingly special.
No sooner have you entered the space, lit by archaic tungsten bulbs, than you are grabbed by Charles Alderdice, a confident showman and storyteller who tonight we feel indeed has a story to tell. This poised persona is not to last long, however, as over the course of the tale the line is blurred between fantasy and reality. The show is a slow and rapid descent into madness as it expertly plays with the metaphysical until the audience don’t know who is asking the questions or in fact who should be answering them. Positioning the audience in the round allows them to recognise the same perplexed expressions on each other’s faces as one man’s mind falls apart before them.
Robert Oliver’s performance as Alderdice ripples with an electric intensity as he crumbles before our very eyes. Oliver handles his audience expertly and wittily, refusing to let up as his tortured imaginings pour from him while he oscillates between storyteller, man and actor. To be singled out is to be invited into privilege, if a glimpse at one man’s delusion can be called such a thing. He includes and vitalises everyone within the intimate space right up until he can bear it no more and his mind fails him. As he collapses to the floor the audience are unapologetically escorted from the room and left to wonder what it was they were just witness to.
The supporting cast, Meurig Marshall and Blake Barbiche playing the Groundskeeper and Maid respectively, only deliciously heighten the madness with their attempts to intervene for the better. They voice the audience’s concern after quickly becoming the last refuge of sanity within the space.
Writer Nathan Foad has innovatively adapted Carroll’s poem, which director Samuel Lane has transformed into both a punishing and rewarding twenty-minute rabbit hole. Indeed the only factor to be held against the show is its brevity, but this is something easily remedied were they to pursue the show’s future.
Whispers in the dark. The supernatural by lantern-light. HookHitch theatre company’s ambitious four-piece season at the Arts Theatre is bolstered by this inventive and immersive reimagining of the darkly haunting poem. Phantasmagoria is an example of storytelling at its most concise and imaginative. Alderdice cries “are you suggesting I’m mad?!” (to whom is anyone’s guess). Quite the opposite, Mr Alderdice: I believe you’re suggesting that we are.
Phantasmagoria is playing Above The Arts (at the Arts Theatre) until 23 June. For more information and tickets, see the Arts Theatre website.