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13 Frights of Hallowe’en

by on 13 November 2020

Chill in the Air

13 Frights of Hallowe’en

Audiotorium!

Teddington Theatre Club until 31st October, then as Podcast

Review by Eleanor Lewis

The afternoon light gave way to the dim, grey evening as the shadow of a tall figure fell across the glass panel in the front door, snuffing out the remaining sunlight in the small hallway … …  It was in fact the man from DPD delivering the latest of Lockdown 2.0’s online Christmas shopping, but following a couple of hours spent listening to TTC’s latest podcast (branded under its Audiotorium! soubriquet ) 13 Frights of Hallowe’en, it could just as easily have been some vague but frightful presence from beyond the grave.

What else does anyone want to do at this time of year – dark evenings, fog, the prospect of another Zoom call – other than equip themselves with a suitable beverage, occupy the entire sofa (whilst keeping another human being close by for reassurance) and drift off into the world of old, rambling manor houses, parsonages (there’s always a parsonage) and mysterious locked rooms into which you must not go?  All of these things and more can be found on TTC’s podcast 13 Frights of Hallowe’en.   

Being quite an intimate experience, a podcast is an ideal, erm, medium for ghost stories and there are, unsurprisingly, thirteen of them on 13 Frights of Hallowe’en.  The pieces vary in tone from the fabulously classic The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell, which involves phantom organ playing (I fondly remember Dr Phibes – anyone else?) and an intermittent spectral-child, to the gently comic The Open Window (H H Munro) and the actually quite disturbing The Crossroads, (read by Heather Mathew)in response to which you wonder amongst other things quite what state poet Amy Lowell was in when she wrote it. 

Amongst the selection is M R James’ Lost Hearts.  (Readers may remember M R James from last autumn’s The Archers.Lost Hearts is about a young orphan, taken in by his apparently kindly, elderly cousin and given a home in the cousin’s imposing, dark and rather isolated house where a satisfying quota of disturbing events then take place.  You may think you can predict the rest.  You probably can’t.

The story features the previously mentioned locked room but in this case it’s a bathroom for reasons which become appallingly clear only when you get to the end of Steve Taylor’s cool narration.  Make the mundane and familiar unnerving and you’re onto a winner.  I mean, who didn’t think twice before stepping into the shower having seen Hitchcock’s Psycho?  Whilst we’re on the subject of bathrooms though, I’m glad I’m not the only one to find Victorian institution-type bathrooms creepy.  Apart from anything else they’re generally freezing cold which is natural territory for any supernatural presence if you ask me. 

Another story in the collection is The Violet Car which, listened to from a 21st century perspective might be seen as a classic description of what we now call Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.  It isn’t, it’s a ghost story written in 1910 by E Nesbitt (of Railway Children fame), but with a curiously modern human element.  Alongside being an effective ghost story it’s a clever narrative, the central narrator begging indulgence for her shortcomings as storyteller and so drawing the listener further in.  Mrs Gaskell teases her readers, and listeners too, in The Old Nurse’s Story:  “I see you don’t care so much for this part of the story as for what you think is to come”.  The readers happy to be led down whatever path the writer takes them.  All the stories in 13 Frights are from writers in complete command of their art.

The Open Window, by H H Munro (better known as Saki) is both witty and unsettling.  Its author, like his main character, knowing exactly what his readers want.  And beyond the story itself, is the window symbolic of a mind open to things we don’t understand and if so, what does the story tell us, or is it in fact just a window?  Either way, Sian Walters read the story beautifully,

Most striking about 13 Frights overall is its professionalism.  I’d switched off Radio 4 to listen and then forgot the radio was off so high was the standard of reading and production.  Nigel Cole edited and produced the work and Harry Jacobs recorded.  A sterling job was done with music and sound effects – I loved the quiet ticking clock in The Old Nurse’s Story which, alongside the obvious, provided a sense of time passing and stories being passed on.  So much more depends on lighting, sound and special effects in the production of ghost stories, particularly if it’s a visual production, the actors are almost of secondary importance.  Radio and podcasts aren’t visual but atmosphere must still be created and there’s only so much a voice can do. 

That said however, the voices in 13 Frights were perfectly cast.  The business of putting yourself second to the needs of the narrative is not easy, nor is changing voices for different characters without overthinking it.  Dorothy Duffy reading The Old Nurse’s Tale was wholly engaging, as were Mia Skytte-Jensen as the nurse narrator in The Violet Car, Steve Taylor with Lost Hearts, Luke Daxon with August Heat (William Fryer Harvey) and Zoe Harvey-Lee reading The Robber Bridegroom by the brothers Grimm which served as a reminder of exactly how violent and graphic fairy stories were before they were softened to suit the nerves of children.  And even after that adjustment, the sheer number of mad, forest-dwelling old women who spent their time entrapping passing children in these tales is still strikingly high and quite unnerving.

The pieces in the collection range from eight minutes to just over an hour so you can choose exactly when and for how long you want to be frightened which is a wonderful feature of 21st century technology I think.  I have some left to listen to and I will be picking candles, wine and a particular place on the sofa as soon as this is complete.  Many thanks to TTC (whoops, to Audiotorium! ) … very enjoyable and highly recommended.

Eleanor Lewis, November 2020

Photography by Dorothy Hildegard, Caitlin Duffy, LMHS and Christopher Kaisehrap

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