There’s more than a touch of The Woman in Black about Peaceful, The Off-Off-Off-Broadway Company’s offering at this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe Festival. Written and performed by the three-strong troupe, Peaceful is the story of Miss Charles, a wealthy old woman living alone in a crumbling mansion. Haunted by nightmares and a mysterious ‘presence’, she confides first in her friend and building contractor Mr Coburn and then in the enigmatic medium Mr De Villiers. Hoping to banish the ghosts of her family’s past, Charles invites De Villiers to hold a séance in her home, with Coburn a sceptical attendant. The consequences of ‘opening the door’ to the undead are, of course, not what any of them bargained for.
This production does extremely well to create and sustain a chilling, shadowy Victorian tension throughout. An unsettling atmosphere is established from the moment the audience take their seats. The cast begin in tableau onstage, their dark costumes blending in with the black backdrop, while Laura Louise Baker (playing Miss Charles) sits concealed by a white lace veil. A short reel of grey, flickering images is projected onto the backdrop, setting the tone and revealing sinister motifs that will become relevant over the course of the play. Equally creepy is the virtually constant soundtrack of rumbling thunder, scratching gramophone recordings and whispers that backgrounds the scenes. It feels as if Annie, the child ghost Miss Charles is seeking to contact, could walk into the audience at any moment.
Unfortunately, the company is restricted by the confines of the Kings Arms studio theatre. Scenes that need sudden blackouts have their dramatic effect lessened by the levels of light—when a possessed De Villiers attacks Miss Charles at the climax of the séance before suddenly ‘disappearing,’ his silhouette is in fact visible onstage.
Whilst the concept of Peaceful is an interesting one—it’s based on the real life story of Sarah Winchester, a woman who entombed herself in a labyrinthine house in an attempt to escape evil spirits—there are a few too many twists in the plot for such a short piece. At first it seems that Coburn and De Villiers conspiring to trick Charles out of her fortune will be the primary plot development, but then the motives of Charles herself are called into question. In the somewhat bewildering final scene, De Villiers approaches the old lady menacingly, and she appears to recognise that her doom is imminent.
Nonetheless, Peaceful is a thrillingly tense and well-acted performance—Laura Louise Baker’s nervous fear is palpable, whilst Jaacq Hugo (De Villiers) is scarily convincing when his character is possessed by a malevolent spirit. Audiences at the Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes are in for a treat—their dreams will be anything but peaceful after seeing this production.
This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website.