“The most significant contribution that our large brain made to our approach to the universe was to endow us with the power of story.” These are the words that ring out as an introduction to a night centralised on the ability stories have to captivate their audiences. An office transformed into a small theatre, The Accidental Theatre is tucked away on the fourth floor of the Wellington Building on Wellington Street just opposite Belfast City Hall. Although small the Accidental Theatre was boasting a large bill of writers, performers and poets all coming together through a passion for telling stories.
Appropriate to the story-telling theme, the stage set-up is a few bookcases of worn out books and a chair in the centre. It all has a very lived in feel enhanced through sparse lighting perfect for the intimate setting. Kicking the night off is a performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror classic “The Raven” performed by Michael Patrick.
Poe’s classic although typically understood as a Gothic horror poem is transformed by Patrick into a comedic performance of an eccentric and dishevelled man encountering the visitation of a raven to his abode. With the raven being simply a soft toy hand puppet played by Patrick himself, there is a great deal of humour through watching the ridiculousness of the man’s fearful reaction to the raven’s repeated screeching of “Nevermore!” A particular highlight is when it perches on an audience member’s head and also when Patrick takes a seat from an audience member to watch and mull over the raven perched at the other end of the room. Other comedic moments include reading “over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” for which Patrick shows the audience a book simply titled “FORGOTTEN LORE”
Continuing with the comedic horror element is a poetry reading by Phyllis McKenna. Her first poem “I Woke Up This Morning” humorously reflects on a date that takes a somewhat macabre turn. Her conversational, colloquial poems tell comedic stories such as “Mountain Lonely” that recalls the reader’s being stranded in the Divis mountains where “white lines are no longer a safety feature.”
Delving into a more classically horror orientated realm and away from comedy is Peter Fahy’s performance of Faust as Mephistophles. Dressed in a devil costume his chilling performance although simply one of spoken word still manages to be both unsettling and captivating especially after the audience has been eased into the evening through comedy.
The fourth act of the evening “Acid” is an original piece both written and performed by Gavin Turtle. Confused and unsettled, the protagonist enters the room with the sounds of rave music in the background. Gathering from his phonecall that he was at a rave and has taken two acid tabs the performance shows that there is a much darker side to partying and things certainly take a dark turn within this performance. With the setting being an abandoned warehouse with a mirror hanging in front of him, staring into the mirror and humming he steps through and the audience is left with a very dark and ambiguous ending.
After an interval the next performance is from “The Dead School” by Patrick McCabe, adapted and directed by Jim O’Hagan and performed by Owen McCavana. Looking dishevelled McCavana enters the stage wearing a get up that leaves a lot to be desired: a coat, shorts and bare feet. In a performance that toes the line between comedy and horror, it begins with the audience being shown how to cut onions and tomatoes to make chilli. Urging the audience to “massage” skin off onions and wielding a knife around, McCavana’s performance shows the underlying danger beneath a crazed and unhinged character. What begins as deliriously happy and filled with dark humour sinks into darker, more unsettling realms as his character has flashbacks to a career as a teacher. As the voices of his pupils sound in the theatre, he asks the ironic question of “Did he really think he could get in my head?” As the performance comes to an end with McCavana repeatedly punching a pillow he is pretending to be his pupil, the audience are left with the chilling words “There wasn’t so much cheek out of him after that.”
Original piece “Butterflies” written by Jonathan Baille and performed by Holly Hannaway certainly doesn’t offer any light relief from McCavana’s unsettling performance. A very sparse setting with simply a chair and a spotlight is all that is needed as Hannaway delivers an extremely enthralling story of family and mental breakdown. Although it is shown at the end that her character is telling a doctor her story, up until that point it feels as though she is speaking directly to the audience. An extremely emotionally fuelled performance that excels in making the audience unsettled through its troubling details, it shows that human beings can be haunted by more than mere ghosts. As Hannaway is dragged out of the room by the silent and foreboding doctor the audience is left to draw their own troubling conclusions.
Catherine Rees and Patrick McBrearty’s performance of “The Weir” by Conor McPherson very much stays true to the ghost stories element of the evening. Beginning mid conversation, the setting is in a haunted house as Rees urges McBrearty to tell a ghost story. As he recounts the details of a story about a young girl using a ouiji board that seems to summon up a spirit of a woman, the audience are left hanging on to his every word. Conversational, the audience are left feeling as though they are eavesdropping on two strangers’. Rees follows the first story with her own about her young daughter dying in a swimming accident. While McBrearty’s character is sceptical about his story, Rees’ character is completely certain that her daughter rang her asking to be collected. As the two stories finish that eeriness after hearing a ghost story is palpable.
After the last interval, the final act of the evening “Murder on the Dancefloor” provides some comic relief to what was a pretty heavy second half. Written and performed by Gary Crossan, Christopher Grant and Stephen Coulter, it also features Rosie Barry. The four make up rivals in Northern Ireland’s disco dancing competition. Based in 2002, much of the comedy in the performance is through the hindsight the audience has on that particular year. A particular highlight is how the prize for the competition is a £25 Virgin Megastores voucher accompanied with the line “I’ve the rest of my life to spend that Virgin Megastores voucher – they’re not going anywhere.” Ending the evening on a lighter note “Murder on the Dancefloor” has its audience in stitches from the very onset.
Pan Narrans “Ghost Stories” although quite laid-back felt like a community of theatre, poetry and literature lovers coming together to celebrate the art of story-telling. With such a variety of performances it catered for all tastes and was the perfect way to kick off Halloween. Ranging from fun moments to dark, troubling moments it was a captivating evening by all accounts and showcased just some of the great talent in the arts sector that Belfast has to boast of.