You don’t need much to tell a good ghost story. Admittedly I’m something of a coward, but I’ve been sent into agonies of sleepless, giddy terror by nothing more than a good storyteller on a dim summer night. Kit Finnie: Mabel and Mickey, billed as a feminist ghost story, is a little more elaborate than that, but unfortunately doesn’t put the potential of ghostly theatrical magic to wholly effective use.
The play is three things at once: a one-woman show about early film star Mabel Normand, who maybe murdered her maybe lover; a rehearsal where Kit Finnie and her stage manager Lily (who has lines, though she is not credited as a performer on any of the materials I can find, which bill the show as a solo performance) attempt to run through said one-woman show; and a haunting.
The first two don’t connect smoothly to the third, as the rules of the haunting are never made clear. What triggers the appearance of the spirit? Why is she disrupting the performance – and frankly, how? At certain points Finnie stares at something unseen or shudders, but it’s not clear enough what invisible sensation she’s reacting to. Other interventions are clearer, but don’t really illustrate what the ghost is hoping to achieve. That sounds prosaic, I know, but there’s not much menace in an aimless haunting. What is the spirit here to make Finnie do?
The implied explanation is that Mabel is unsatisfied with Finnie’s play, feels she’s failing to tell the whole story. But in this, Finnie seems to be relying on a greater audience knowledge of the actual Mabel Normand than I, at least, possess: I had no idea what was missing from her version of the story that might arouse this ghost’s ire, nor did I have enough context about Mabel’s star persona to really understand the allusions to a divide between what people expected Mabel to say and be, and what she really wanted to. The meat of the show seems to lie somewhere in that dissonance, but I simply don’t have the background knowledge to fill in what the show didn’t lay out explicitly.
The plot description on the Fringe website alludes to a subplot that doesn’t seem to actually happen, which makes me wonder whether the whole thing was trimmed for time. This would explain the way Finnie’s interesting ideas don’t quite gel together. There’s just never quite enough explanation for anything, not enough time spent unpicking the themes—and way too much time spent on the solo show itself.
The monologues as Mabel are overwritten, and after the first time Kit broke character and began speaking to Lily, I hoped that this was intentional, to help differentiate between play and ‘reality’—but as the bulk of the performance in fact is these monologues, now I’m not so sure. The speeches are interspersed with backstory told through slide projector shadow puppetry, which is—like the rest of the show, really—a clever and intriguing conceit that lacks the attention to detail, especially visually, that would make it cohere into something really effective.
But the seeds of the idea are there for developing. I’d like to see the ghost story of Mabel Normand, and I’d like to see Finnie find a way to really tell it.
Kit Finnie: Mabel and Mickey is on until 26 August 2018 at Underbelly Cowgate. Click here for more details.