Saturday 2 January 2021

The Haunting of Alice Bowles (UK 2020)

Ok not a film or TV but an online stream of a play, directed by Alastair Whatley and Peter Franks and adapted by Franks from 'The Experiment,' a 1931 story by M. R. James. A production of The Original Theatre Company, streamed online via, the play was produced and perfromed under socially distanced conditions ie largely from actors' bedrooms and homes.

Matt (Max Bowden) broadcasts his urban exploring experiences for his online fans. For his latest expedition, he's joined by his girlfriend Caitlin (Alexandra Guelff). They're about to explore an area that, back in 1918, accommodated the bodies of over 200 victims of the Spanish Flu; they're particularly interested in the grave of one Francis Bowles. Fairly quickly they find a sign on which the words 'Talk to the dead' are scrawled in chalk; the grave itself has been defaced with the word 'monster.'

Watching their broadcast on a laptop is an old guy dressed in tweed who produces a pile of papers from his desk. He holds up a card with the devil on it and says: "Do I have your attention? Another experiment, just like before."

We then flashback to Norfolk in 1918, and the main part of the story. Reverend Hall (Stephen Boxer) is informed by his housekeeper, Mrs Ivey (Poppy Roe) of a recent local death; it's the not especially popular Mr Francis Bowles ("Good riddance; vicious old bastard," mutters the housekeeper). Rev. Hall pays his respects to Bowles's surviving family, comprising Mrs Alice Bowles (Tamzin Outhwaite) and her son Joseph (Jack Archer) from a previous marriage. Alice, although apparently deep in grief, seems unusually keen for her late husband to be interred that evening, and in the north side of the churchyard rather than the family vault; she also won't be attending the funeral. 

The subsequent will reading leaves most of the estate to Alice but some volumes from Francis's library are gifted to one Edwin Fowler of Gloucester. Although apparently Bowles was a wealthy man, the will contains no cash settlements; he had no bank accounts or bonds, and it's assumed that the money was kept on the premises. Alice thinks she knows where it is, and she and Joseph search therough Bowles's cabinets and drawers. But what Alice finds, rather than money, horrifies her. A series of papers and photographs implicating her late husband in the practice of child abuse and Satanism (with young Joseph included in the rituals), also involving Mr Fowler.

Alice decides to blackmail Fowler by letting him know what she's discovered, but the resulting communication from the Gloucester man is very strange; he makes reference to something called the 'Middle State of the Soul' in which a recently deceased person can be summoned to answer questions. Joseph feels that this is the only way to discover the location of Francis's money, but the ritual, once performed, has deadly consequences.

Meanwhile Matt, who's in rather dire financial circumstances, finds himself in receipt of pile of old papers sent by, he supposes, a fan of the show. And within them disovers documents and guidance related to the 'Middle State of the Soul.'

The choice of subject matter here may be a rather minor James short story, but it's a good one; it's relatively unknown, has parallels with the current pandemic in its Spanish Flu backdrop, and features enough Jamesean narrative tics - secret papers, unholy deeds, dishonest seekers of fortune, the past reaching into the present - to satisfy. But it's the welding of James's approach to storytelling - assembling the elements of the tale piece by piece - to the structure of the play that really works. What could be a somewhat distancing experience, that of watching the actors performing their parts separately, is actually anything but; the disassociation actually works in the play's favour. There are also some great performances here which override any limitations of set up (Tamzin Outhwaite's vicious and secretive Alice is terrific) and the technical elements which knit the thing together - not least Max Pappenheim's ominous but not overly intrusive sound design - create real tension. 

You can watch The Haunting of Alice Bowles online now until 28 February. Details of streaming can be found here.

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