I’m the world’s biggest wimp. I don’t watch horror movies and a tiny bit of me is still afraid of things that go bump in the night. So I feel almost cheated to have come out of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari so unscathed. It’s not a bad show – there are some mesmerising moments and standout performances – but it’s just not scary.
The use of complete blackouts and the total commitment from the cast create a few moments of frisson, but it never touches on genuine horror. This is not the fault of the talented cast but of a rather thin and sketchy attempt to recreate a classic silent film on stage. The imposition of dialogue is a little clumsy but manages to work reasonably well, and the use of signs for the Somnambulist’s dialogue is inspired. The story is creepy, massively enhanced by the excellent music which is characterised by variations on one eerie refrain. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get beyond creepy, and what should be an enigmatically off-beat ending is just confusing, at least for those of us who haven’t seen the film upon which the show is based.
Christopher Doyle, as both the leader of the fair and the somnambulist, is electrifying – seeing him as the vibrant and loud fair-leader makes his silent, staring appearances are the sleepwalker even more powerful. Ollie Birch, as the eponymous doctor, does not exude enough menace and his machinations are not explicit enough to make him a figure of terror. Sophie Roberts does amazing things with a very thin part, turning Jane’s pouting and flirting into a much more nuanced and interesting character than the script allows.
The Arcola’s tiny space forces productions to be imaginative, and often produces captivating stories in the best possible ways. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has some wonderful tableaux and some beautifully clever scenes: the cast become the town clock, fairground attractions, even scenery at some points. And then there are moments which fall woefully flat – the use of shadow play behind a sheet was, for me, plain clumsy and undermined the ingenuity of some of the other scenes. It did, my companion assures me, mirror the style of the film, but it felt tacked on and out-of-place here; histrionic in a way that the rest of the production avoided.
It’s not a bad show and it’s well acted. The music is fantastic and some of the movement is close to brilliant. If you’re looking to be scared, though, or even mildly creeped out, you’re going to want stronger stuff than this. The whole production feels a bit thin, even at 80 minutes. Perhaps a longer version would have more time to ramp up the tension.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is playing at the Arcola theatre until 16 March. For more information and to book tickets see the Arcola’s website.