Saturday, 11 December 2021

Theatre review: The Child in the Snow

Writer Piers Torday has become a regular contributor of the Christmas show at Wilton's Music Hall ever since The Box of Delights, and with the return of director Justin Audibert and designer Tom Piper this should be a team that knows its way around London's most atmospheric venue, and the sort of story that works there. And in a couple of story points you can see why Elizabeth Gaskell’s short ghost story "The Old Nurse's Story" made them think of the Victorian music hall which in recent years has seemed much safer from demolition than it used to be, but whose partial restoration means it still easily conjures up the thought that it might be haunted. Unfortunately the resulting play, The Child in the Snow, does nothing to live up to the setting - in fact the only ghostly thing about it is how insubstantial it feels.

Two men acting out a ghost story has kept The Woman in Black running for decades, so there's no reason two women doing the same shouldn't work, given the right premise - trouble is, I'm really not sure they have been, and right from the start the framing device for the story feels awkward: The story has been relocated to 1918, a time when a combination of World War I and the Spanish Flu have left young nurse Hester (Safiyya Ingar) exhausted and traumatised, even to the point of having lost many of her memories from childhood.

To help her get them back Hester's come to a remote country house where she spent some time as a child, accompanied by the medium Estelle (Debbie Chazen,) who she hopes can contact the long-dead relatives who knew her at the time. This Estelle manages, being possessed by an aunt who wanted nothing to do with Hester when she was orphaned, sending her to this manor house. Later possessions include the housekeeper who provided a motherly figure to the young girl, and eventually the fearsome lady of the house, whose many rules include forbidding music of all kinds, the opening of doors and windows, and especially not leaving the house when it's snowing, even if it sounds like there's another child out there calling her to play.

Piper's set nicely blends into the music hall's faded decor, and the story's reference to the manor including its own similar, locked-up venue, suggests why this might have seemed a good match to Wilton's; as does the fact that an Indian musician plays an important role in the story, in a building whose incongruous Indian-inspired murals are among its unique oddities. And Audibert's production hits some of the stage ghost story staples - sudden blackouts, creepy noises and the odd bit of magic and misdirection to make thngs appear and disappear. But honestly there's not even that many of these, because Torday's script, which relies far too heavily on Hester just narrating her story to really let us get lost in it, gives so few opportunities for actual scares.

I'm not familiar with Gaskell's original story but from this I have to assume it's pretty short, as there's a distinct feeling of a simple tale being stretched out with the storytelling device that doesn't make sense even in a supernatural story (who thinks of a medium as a cure for amnesia?) and a tale that meanders towards a big reveal of the ghost's origins, without ever really building a picture of it along the way. And that's probably a bigger problem than there not being any jump scares: There's no peril, because there's never any real sense of Hester being in any danger if she goes outside, other than from the cold. Wilton's remains one of my favourite places in London, but in terms of atmosphere it's doing all the work here.

The Child in the Snow by Piers Torday, based on "The Old Nurse's Story" by Elizabeth Gaskell, is booking until the 31st of December at Wilton's Music Hall.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Nobby Clarke.

No comments:

Post a Comment