Dusty mirrors. Fading photographs. Thin wafting curtains. The lights are ever so slightly dim, the music ever so slightly disorientating. RWCMD’s attempt to cloak the Richard Burton Theatre in a Gothic shadow is admirable. At once immersive and ambient, it sets the audience up for what is to follow.
What does follow is ninety minutes of well-told, well-performed and well-produced theatre. It’s impossible not to make comparisons to the work of Edgar Allan Poe and MR James – producers Mappa Mundi and Theatr Mwldan cite the two as key influences – and Still Life certainly comes close to those standards. Allowed to present different facets of the genre thanks to the play’s episodic structure, writer Keiron Self confidently leads the audience through a series of familiar stories. A witch’s curse. A creepy clown. A haunted harp. It’s textbook Gothic horror, and Self understands the source material well, but Still Life just stops short of truly terrifying. It teeters on the edge of that line, certainly, but always stops short of crossing it.
That same criticism can’t be levelled at the actors, who tackle the material will full gusto. There’s a level of melodrama and hamminess required that all five performers embrace. Yes, some of these characters are caricatures, but never beyond belief. Francois Pandolpho, in particular, impresses in his portrayal of two characters that couldn’t be more different.
Still Life is a very entertaining and engaging piece of theatre, with strong performances doing justice to a solid script. While it may not reach the levels of terror expected (at least by this reviewer), it provides enough chills to leave an impression. Horror is extremely difficult to get right on stage, but Mappa Mundi and Theatr Mwldan have come very, very close.