As it fast approaches Christmas, I can think of nothing better than settling down and enjoying one of M.R. James’ best, and certainly my favourite, ghost story – Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Harking back to the days where M. R. James himself would read his stories aloud to a small audience, this eerie and creepy tale was delivered in a small, and probably mostly unvisited (except by locals), community centre in Clifton. With its authentic setting and on an appropriately dreary night, the performance was an interesting adaptation of this classic ghost story.
Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You follows the story of Professor Parkins, played by Mark Jardine. On an expedition to the beach, Parkins discovers a strange whistle. He decides to blow it, believing that it can only be a simple whistle, but upon doing so, begins to see a strange apparition. At first the thing appears at a distance, but as the days and nights go on, the strange human-like figure creeps closer and closer.
I was initially astounded by the fact that there were only two actors for this entire performance. What this did well was to create a sense of intimacy between Parkins and the audience.
“it was a clever decision to not flood the performance with the distractions of multiple characters”
Since this is a ghost story based on the imaginings of one man, it was a clever decision to not flood the performance with the distractions of multiple characters played by multiple people.
However, it must be said that the stand-out performance of the night must be given to Jack Wilkinson, who delivered both the play’s comic relief and its most scary moments. His portrayal of arguably the most terrifying part of the story, the moment when the thing that is chasing Parkins appears as a ghost in the bed sheets, was surprisingly other-worldly.
“if it wasn’t for my prior knowledge, I am not sure I would have entirely understood what was really going on”
Although this performance should most definitely be applauded for moments of real horror and terror, there was much of to this performance that was lacking and needed some improvement. As a keen lover of ghost and horror stories, I went into this play with a pretty good understanding of the plot already. However, if it wasn’t for my prior knowledge, I am not sure I would have entirely understood what was really going on.
Indeed, it is the whistle that begins this horrific chain of events, but the whistle motif was completely absent for the majority of the performance. It only appeared at the very beginning when Parkins initially blows it, and right at the end when he asks Hobbis to destroy it.
“there was never really a sense of this thing getting closer”
Moreover, the story’s creepiness depends much on the understanding that the thing that is appearing to the professor is getting gradually closer and closer to him. However, there seemed to be a real jarring quality to this intrinsic part of the story line. There was never really a sense of this thing getting closer and closer with no way of stopping it, and thus the real scare factor in the story was lost.
Instead, the hysteria that was enacted by Parkins covered a lot of the truly scary elements. Perhaps a little stripping back of the exaggerated hysteria would have helped the underlying scariness in the story to come through more easily.
Overall, although there were some truly magical moments and fabulous acting in this performance, the actual essence of the ghost story seemed to get lost.
Indeed, I have always found in my experience of watching a fair amount of scary plays, that it is very hard to create an authentically scary performance. I think less is always more, and subtleness may have been the key to unlocking the true brilliance of this play.
Image credit: Pamela Raith Photography.
‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You’ is next performed at the Thomas Cranmer Centre, Aslockton on 9 December. For more information see here.
Follow the theatre troupe: www.newperspectives.co.uk @nptheatre