In Haunt

It’s 1953. A time of weird and wonderful goings on. This was the year that the animated version of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart was released, the year Aldous Huxley experimented with the psychedelics that inspired his novel The Doors of Perception, and the year Mount Everest was scaled. It also marks the year that the Parapsychologist Doctor Roy Earle entered Blaine Manor, reputedly the most haunted house in England, and was never seen again... 

The Haunting of Blaine Manor

The story of Doctor Roy Earle and his eerie encounters are the subject of the award-winning play The Haunting of Blaine Manor, written and directed by the local Joe O’Byrne who is from Bolton – and stars in the play himself. The gritty influence of the North certainly has a part to play too; with intense, locally-created soundscapes (by Justin Wetherill) swirling round the characters of Roy Earle and the rest of the manor’s guests as they are trapped for one fateful evening.

Now The Haunting of Blaine Manor is preparing to go on the road – in what has been a whirlwind of delighting and disturbing audiences in equal measure since the show won the Salford Star’s ‘Best Play’ award in 2017. Following on from extensive critical acclaim, 2019 sees it embark on an ambitious tour of some of the most weird and wonderful venues in the country. According to Joe O’Byrne himself (pictured below, in role):

“It's great to be taking the show out on the road again, especially after the success of last year's almost completely sold out tour.  Some venues were sold out a good couple of weeks before we got there - and word of mouth about the play has become so strong that we sold out The Met in Bury without putting a poster up in the town or even handing out a flyer.”

Joe O'Byrne

2019 sees the cast of Peter Slater, Jo Haydock, Andrew Yates, Phil Dennison, Ed Barry and Joe himself (with promotional trailers and imagery for this year by Darren McGinn) ready to impress audiences – and in some impressive spaces, as Joe adds:

“This year's tour has some simply stunning venues, really beautiful theatres with amazing history, and one or two interesting spooky details.  I haven't researched the history of every theatre we are coming to yet, but I have thus far found some quite disturbing stuff that would certainly make the term 'haunted'.  So, why write a haunted house tale? I always wanted to and there's more about ‘why’ on my website.”

A number of atmospheric Northern locations are included in 2019’s tour– for example The Playhouse in Halifax (15th June), which is a Grade II listed former church full of stories and also the 1901-founded Stockport Garrick Theatre (5th July), where Sir Ian McKellen is an honorary member. The Sale Waterside is another venue (21st June), with the current arts centre building occupying the site of what was the old Sale Civic Theatre and Trafford Council Town Hall. A standout highlight will be the play’s visit to the magnificent Whitby Pavilion on Halloween night itself (31st October). Joe reflects:

“This year's Halloween performance of the play is at the fabulous Whitby Pavilion, in the shadow of Dracula's Castle on the shores of the North Sea. The show will be part of the Gothic Weekend that Whitby has annually.  Apparently this theatre has its own ghost too, we won't be short of company then, no doubt it will be an extra spirited performance.”

The Haunting of Blaine Manor 2

Another venue that Joe is particularly looking forward to visiting on tour is the beautiful Epstein theatre in Liverpool, a theatre with a particularly haunted history….

“The theatre was formerly known as The Neptune, before it was renamed in honour of The Beatles’ famous manager,” says Joe. “The history of the place has seen the reporting of many scary and paranormal goings on - a perfect venue for the play? If not, a bit scarier for the actors – and here's why.  Built in 1913 above the famous Crane brothers music shop, the venue was originally designed as a music hall, but over the years, amateur drama groups started using the venue in increasing numbers, leading to its status being changed from ‘music hall’ to ‘theatre’. The Crane brothers took a very active role in running their beloved venue until tragedy struck the family in the early twenties. In a fit of depression, one of the brothers committed suicide by hanging himself from the theatre’s upper circle. Apparently there is a regular apparition of a ghostly man dressed all in black and whose head flops sideways on his left shoulder.  There have been many sightings of the man… with the people who see him reportedly facing misfortune, and even death, in the days after they spy him. One actor, who reportedly saw the reflection of the man in her dressing-room, died herself a few days later. Her ghost now also apparently haunts the building with a number of reported sightings of a tall, slim, mournful woman wandering the stage.

“In addition to the above there is a remarkable tale about a haunted production of Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out that played The Epstein in 1993.  In this particular production there is much use of a pentagram - apparently this was drawn upside down on the Epstein's stage and it is believed that it was this error that lead to many disturbing events during the run of the show. The cast and crew were left extremely disturbed by it all and some of it made the press, including the tale of an  actor who awoke to find bruising on her neck, the lighting and sound rigs developing 'minds of their own' during the productions run, actors on stage during the production seeing a figure 'disappear' in the lighting box. Other reports included slamming doors, the ghost of a child entering the lighting box, and actors feeling intensely cold under the heat of a full lighting rig.  You might think these tales were being made up to sell tickets, but the show had already sold out weeks in advance. A pentagram plays quite a large part in The Haunting of Blaine Manor too…

The Haunting

No stranger to encountering dark and delving themes in his writing, Joe O’Byrne maintains that ‘horror is a place’ – almost a motto for his work. He is also the creator of the Salford-inspired sinister series of Tales From Paradise Heights and brought the character of the terrifying Frank Morgan to life in the play I’m Frank Morgan: reWIRED, which started its run at Salford’s The Kings Arms. A much-loved venue by Joe, The Kings Arms has also hosted The Haunting of Blaine Manor a number of times and served as the venue for the original promotional shots.

But why does Joe take inspiration from the North and its Gothic edges so significantly?

“I've always had an interest in the supernatural, the gothic, the eerie and the unexplained.  There's a beating, thriving gothic heart to Manchester and the north, I've mentioned before how much of an effect the architecture has for me - particularly around Manchester city centre.  The John Rylands Library, and Manchester Town Hall courtyards, the woodwoses and other mythical creatures in carvings of the choir stalls of Manchester Cathedral. The gargoyles on the churches and the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Fountain of Albert Square as seen on the HAUNT website header – great examples too.  Just about any town in the north has its share of gargoyles and mythical monsters carved into its buildings, Bolton my home town has its fair share too.  But when I think back further there are influences from my childhood that help give birth to The Haunting of Blaine Manor

The Haunting of Blaine Manor Set

“I grew up on a council estate, but that estate was blessed by the backdrop of Bluebell Forrest in Bolton, near Smithills and practically in the shadow of Smithills Hall, it stands on the slopes of the West Pennine moors and parts of the hall are over 800 years old.  It looks very dramatic and for a kid with a fertile imagination it was the most haunting of landscapes for me, the grounds and the building itself - there's a hint of the grounds of The Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's The Shining.  I visited the open house museum side of the manor building there so many times as a kid and the grounds were a playground to me and my mates. There was a definite spooky feel to the place, the ancient smell of the rooms, and the way the light came through the windows and beams.  The staff working there were more than familiar with the ghost stories attributed to the hall, and as I was fascinated by the supernatural, I asked about them. The staff were very happy to scare the life out of me and tell me about the place!”

But what were the stories of Smithills Hall which left such an impression on the young Joe? The Grade I listed manor house, with some parts dating as early as the 15th century, can still indeed be visited today, lying on the slopes of the West Pennines above Bolton itself. Joe reflects:

“They told me about the sounds of children laughing, and cats mewling and of the Green Room of Smithills Hall, allegedly haunted by the ghost of George Marsh, a reverend who was burned at the stake outside in 1555 for heresy.  A figure has been seen kneeling in prayer in the chapel there, and a figure of a man with white bushy hair dressed in black has been seen in various rooms there.  I convinced myself I'd heard those giggling children's voices - and perhaps that's where the ghosts of the children in Blaine Manor originated.  There are regular ghost walks and night tours there in certain parts of the hall.

The Haunting of Blaine Manor Live

“Nearby Pendle Hill also plays its part in the play, a very big part actually but I don't want to spoil it for the audience - but yes, within the play? There is witchcraft here.  Again all stemming from my interest as a kid, I heard the horrifying true story of the trials of the Pendle Hill witches and their execution in 1612, so I obviously had to take a trek up there.  I've been up there many times and in the year I wrote The Haunting of Blaine Manor I visited it again.  To this day there are groups that follow the occult that carry out ancient rites up there, including the sacrificing of animals, to the point that the police now close the place off around Halloween. 

“When I wrote the play back in 2015 I did a lot of research around mediums, fake mediums, the occult etc. and discovered that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had a deep fascination with spiritualism and communication with spirits.  One of the play's characters (Scarabus, played by Phil Dennison) cites the fact that '...even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had to deal with cynics.'  Well I had no idea then that the play would be playing The Albert Hall in my home town, Bolton (11th October), in the largest venue the play has played so far, 670 seats, in the very space where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once delivered a lecture on spiritualism.  That is way too cool, and perhaps way too spooky!  His belief in the spirit world indeed left him open and vulnerable to the criticism of cynics, but it's interesting that even in death he never gave up his belief in the spirit world, a few days before his death he wrote, 'The reader will judge that I have had many adventures. The greatest and most glorious of all awaits me now'.”

Dare to see the spirit world for yourself in The Haunting of Blaine Manor? Find out more details on the website and read the reviews here.

By Emily Oldfield

Photography with thanks to Shay Rowan and Karen McBride

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