Review: What the Dolls Saw, VAULT Festival

At home in the dank dungeon of the VAULT Festival, What the Dolls Saw promises the proverbial moon: a true-crime style conundrum “that unravels like a mystery podcast”, but also touches upon sisterhood and the stigmatisation of women in way that would be averse to anyone with a “phobia of dolls or a fear of feminism”. However, in trying to balance these two diasporic sides together within just one hour, the production ends up biting off more than it can chew.

Having returned home for the funeral of their reclusive, dollmaker father, a trio of sisters are confronted by their controlling mother and a sinister mystery: that of their aunt’s (their mother’s identical twin sister) disappearance many years ago. Accompanied by one of the sister’s newly acquired mute ward, and utilising another’s experience as host of a true-crime podcast, they set out to unearth the dark mystery of their childhood – to discover “what the dolls saw.”

What is most compelling about the play are its characters: as opposed to the stereotypical stock-characters that usually make up mysteries, Nic Lamont imbues her world with a colourful cast. From a children’s fiction writer obsessed with the macabre, to a mute teenager with a strange past, to a thorny matriarch who would rather recite Hamlet than hug her daughters, Lamont keeps the world fresh through these multidimensional personalities. Indeed, much of the first half of What the Dolls Saw is dedicated to introducing these delightful personas and providing exposition on their relationships… the difficulties then rise when she has to fit an entire mystery in the remaining time.

Whilst the building blocks of an engaging mystery are present (a shadowy past, locked workshops, and terrifying dolls), Lamont gives herself such little time to introduce these concepts that they are rushed through at a break-neck pace. Unfortunately, this means the narrative relies on so many clichés and tropes that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the true-crime genre can solve the central mystery within a few minutes; it’s more predictable, less puzzling. Furthermore, this means the character dynamics are, in turn, equally rushed – characters who have barely interacted are given sickly-sweet heart-to-hearts, and personal growth is reduced if not absent completely. Which is a shame; it feels like that if Lamont had a longer run-time, or had committed to either side completely, then she would’ve created something truly special. Instead, the audience is left hoping everything could slow down.

Moreover, the cast and crew do a commendable job. The chemistry between the three sisters (Nic Lamont, Holly Morgan and Sasha Wilson) is powerful, as the trio joke and challenge each other as real siblings would. Oddin Orn Himlarsson’s score is divine: fresh, but also referential to classic mystery scores – a true stand out of the production.

Ultimately, the production is disappointing, if only because so much of it shows so much promise: there is evidence of two good plays present but, in attempting to amalgamate them both together, what remains is too disjointed to truly thrive. Nevertheless, the jokes are amusing, the characters are likeable, and Lamont’s ambition is applaudable: it may not entirely succeed, but it has a lot of fun trying.

What the Dolls Saw is playing the VAULT Festival until 9 February. For more information and tickets, visit the VAULT Festival website.