In Haunt

It was an immersive evening as Bolton’s atmospheric Albert Halls– a beautiful neoclassical building originally dating from 1873 – was transformed into a haunted house like no other, with the play The Haunting of Blaine Manor taking to its stage, written by local playwright Joe O’ Byrne.

By Karen McBride

The evening was Friday 11 October, yet the audience were taken back in time to 1953; the year the animated version of Edgar Alan Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart was released, the year Aldous Huxley experimented with the psychedelics that inspired his novel The Doors of Perception. It also was a time of post-war tensions, cultural clashes and Hollywood highs and lows – all inspiring the mood as a group of characters from all over the world come together for an evening in the English country house Blaine Manor; apparently one of the most haunted of its kind.

At the heart of the matter is Doctor Roy Earle, an American investigator of ‘alleged paranormal phenomena’ who is sceptical of ghostly claims – travelling all the way from The States to prove the story of the house wrong. The play pulls us into the action in medias res – it is already unfolding – as Roy meets at the mansion with interested journalist Vivian Rutledge. Roy Earle initially appears unflappable, played with charismatic cool by Peter Slater, creating a character who seemingly prefers to put on a layer of charm rather than give too much of himself away, all topped up with an authentic American drawl. Yet, interestingly, the character of Vivian Rutledge seems rather too interested in Mr Earle – probing, questioning and teasing; a strong show to from actor Jo Haydock who quickly underlines a key theme of the play… perhaps we have more to fear from the living than we have from the dead.

By Karen McBride

After all, for this intense evening the house is also occupied by the eccentric figures of Cairo – an acclaimed medium- and parapsychologist Adolphus Scarabus. Phil Dennison confidently and creatively channels the character of Adolphus; fine-tuned body language bringing to life an old man seemingly lost in his billowing beliefs of the spirit world. But true or not? Oozing eccentricity also is Cairo, with actor Andrew Yates developing a figure who brought bursts of light relief to the stage – even just in the intense raise of an eyebrow – yet does not allow the viewer to fully relax.

The tension created between the cast, cleverly fitting the story, was after all seriously palpable; no easy feat considering this was a rather small ensemble given the size of the magnificent stage. Yet all the actors admirably used this space to full effect, shifting position across the area in a way that still did not feel forced, their faces further animated thanks to atmospheric flashes and pulses of lighting from David Heald. As a storm closes round the mansion for a terrifying night, the atmospheric use of light is amplified by specially-designed soundscaping from Justin Wetherill, all working well with the features of the room – including the opulent organ, which, when cast into intense hues of purple and red, held a terrifying quality. Blaine Manor is indeed is a place transfixed in terror, told even through the notable attention to detail on set: authentic, dark-toned furniture, a skull in a case, strange vials of drink.

The devil is the detail, as they say – and these are qualities conveyed through what is evidently a skilfully written script by  Joe O’Byrne (also the author of a number of gripping stories within Tales from Paradise Heights); a plot intricate and exploratory in its twists, turns and backstories; yet never feeling overdone. This is what I call writing of real depth, exploring the characters psyches in a way which then sinks into the script, storylines emerging from states of the self. The Haunting of Blaine Manor swerves and unnerves, never letting the audience sit easy, stirring up the question… are we more haunted by ourselves and our own actions, than anything else?

By Karen McBride

Joe O’Byrne is not just writer and director of the play either, but also plays the character of Grady, a charismatic butler of the house – with some terrifying secrets to reveal to Doctor Earle. This plunges into an extended exchange of character confrontation… will the American expert face up to his demons – and ultimately, will he admit the terrifying truth? O’Byrne gives the character of Grady real persuasive charm, pulling the audience further into the grip of the ghostly. There are also a number of evocative Northern references, including a mention  of Calderdale and a discussion too of the Pendle Witches, all adding to the immersive setting and skilled storytelling.

 Another character also skilled at creating unnerving effect is custodian of the house Vincent de Lambré – new cast member Ed Barry’s developed characterisation of this mysterious man weighted with gravitas, all adding to experience of Blaine Manor. This a place that leaves visitors changed forever, where time does strange things…

Witnessing the times and evolution of this play itself has also been an experience over the years; having first seen it on a much smaller, more intimate stage at The Kings Arms in Salford. Therefore, I was curious as to how this would translate to a much larger space– though quickly reassured thanks to the tight-knit cast and their distinct yet developed character identities; each a curious case of their own, locked in intrigue. Perhaps, at times, a little more projection of the actor’s voices is needed for such a large stage… but all on the evening added to an intense, unnerving show.

The Albert Halls

Even more unnervingly, the venue itself – the Albert Halls – is home to a terrifying story that creepily connects with the plot of the play. In The Haunting of Blaine Manor, the country house seems to be cursed… especially after enduring a devastating fire in which a number of already disturbed occupants burnt to death. Here in Bolton, the Albert Halls itself endured a devastating fire in 1981, destroying most of the building except the external structure. It is within this ghostly shell that history has been remade, and The Haunting of Blaine Manor truly is testament to a production determined to offer audiences something diverse and gripping. A strong and supportive team underline this effort, not just the cast, but also the likes of Darren McGinn providing digital media skill, as well as photography over the years coming from the likes of Karen McBride and Shay Rowan.

 This is not just a piece of theatre but  an experience you could immerse yourself over and over and still not get to the bottom of…. just like the very depths of the mind. The Haunting of Blaine Manor is a play which leaves us just as terrified of the capabilities of the human condition, as it does stir up the spookiness of the supernatural. Dare you experience it? Read our interview with Joe O'Bryne, telling even more about it here. The play continues its English tour throughout October, including what is set to be a truly unique Halloween showing at The Pavilion in Whitby. Highly recommended.

By Karen McBride

Photography: with thanks to Karen McBride (organ image provided by Joe O'Byrne)

By Emily Oldfield 

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