Michael James Ford, Bairbre Ní Chaoimh and Kyle Hixon in Lost Hearts. Image uncredited.
In this modest adaption of M.R. James's ghost story Lost Hearts, the devil rides out but doesn't bother to show up till the show's half over. And then only metaphorically, by way of sinister children to liven up this lacklustre tale. Stewart Roche and Michael James Ford's strained adaptation as light on chills as it is on thrills. The first half focusing on a Victorian opium addict whose doctor is attempting to get to the root of his addiction. The second focusing on ghosts, pagan rituals, missing children, and some questionable methods for achieving immortality.
A story within a story, with its English country house and an avenging of moral turpitude, Lost Hearts, from 1895, features many of James's hallmarks. Hypnotised by Dr Olsen (a sonorous Michael James Ford), opium addict Stephen (a committed Kyle Hixon) is regressed to eleven years of age to discover what went wrong. There we learn of dead parents and a relocation to the home of the reclusive Mr Abney, (Ford again, doubling up). Mothered by the housemaid Mrs Bunch (a charming Bairbre Ní Chaoimh), Stephen soon starts to see and hear strange things, including rips in his pyjamas and scratch marks at his door. As the tale scrambles towards a creepy ending, it quickly turns into the wrong kind of creepy, seeming to trade ghostly horror for a much more human horror. In a production that consistently tells you more than it ever shows, the end shows too much of the wrong thing. Director Liam Halligan overplaying his hand with Abney and eleven year old Stephen. If the idea was to suggest paedophilia, it comes out of left field. If the idea was to suggest something scary, it suggests paedophilia. Which the story isn't robust enough to support, confirmed by its clumsy and unconvincing ending.
If Roche and Ford retain the marvellous richness of Victorian vocabulary, structurally Lost Hearts drags its feet like Jacob Marley's ghost. Chained to a repetitive Q and A format, this one trick pony dies early on taking potential for real engagement with it. While Q and A is useful in handling exposition, here it's the only game in town, leaving the whole feeling heavy handed, never shedding its story-form shackles. Under Halligan's direction, action potters along. Moments of visual flourish (figures behind rustling curtains) are offset by moments of visual disappointment (poor film projections and a peculiarly uneven carriage ride). It's left to Martin Cahill's draped design, Colm Maher's atmospheric lights, and Rowena Cunningham's excellent costumes to establish mood and context: the show dedicated to Cunningham who died earlier this year.
If humour in ghost stories eases tension, here it has a different impact for there being no tension to ease. Instead, humour takes what feels like an aspiring Hammer Horror movie and turns it into a later Carry On. A play that thinks it's a film, Lost Hearts's design is visually impressive, as is its rich Victorian vocabulary. Regards Halloween scares, it could have done better.
Lost Hearts by M R James, adapted by Stewart Roche and Michael James Ford, presented by Bewley's Cafe Theatre and The Curious Ensemble, runs at Bewley's Café Theatre until November 12.
For more information, visit Bewley's Café Theatre