The pandemic hasn’t halted theatre’s affinity with a good ghost story. This instalment in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival series attempts to emulate some of the supernatural spookiness which has made shows like The Woman in the Black such a success. Gerry Mulgrew is convincing as the owner of a haunted B&B, but Lynda Radley’s story lacks chills or thrills.
The piece begins with Mulgrew explaining his character’s resentment towards an ignorant group of North Carolinians who visit his Scottish B&B. Their obsession for “an authentic Scottish Hogmanay” tests his capacity to “remain warm and welcoming at all times.” Soon, however, he is forced to welcome a cold supernatural presence in the upstairs maid’s room which haunts him in the early hours.
The crucial feature which elevates ghost stories from an artful written tale to an engrossing piece of theatre is the storyteller. Mulgrew animates the monologue with a gruff, disgruntled charisma to complement his heavy facial hair. The character behind his first-person account is given more believable humanity through idioms such as, “swaying like a fishwife on a Friday”. As his facial expressions move between frustration towards the guests and then concern over the strange noises in the night, Mulgrew provides a strong central interest as though sharing the story around a campfire.
Mulgrew’s energy is supported by Danny Krass’s eerie piano music and screeching static sound effects. However, he repeatedly diffuses the suspenseful atmosphere by pausing too often and lingering for too long, trying to build tension but instead appearing almost as though he is improvising the story. Likewise, segmenting the piece builds his increasing distress as he moves around the house, but also exacerbates the staccato rhythm.
The best ghost stories are underpinned by social criticism or a moral lesson, teasing out something in the human consciousness potentially darker or more disturbing than the haunting itself. Although Radley astutely invokes the anxieties and paranoias in our recent experience of being stuck at home, she only lightly develops criticism of the individualism which prioritises the self over altruistic concern for others.
There’s disappointingly little culmination of the limited momentum. Even the closing climax is predictable: when a conspicuously large curtain suddenly appears in shot, it’s not difficult to anticipate its dramatic purpose. This moment effectively summarises the piece’s shortcomings. Although it tries to honestly follow generic conventions, it doesn’t manage to fulfil its promise of providing a scare when it matters.
The Maid’s Room is streaming for free online. For more information, go to the National Theatre of Scotland website.