Terror isn’t quite the word. Disquieting? Yes, perhaps. Creepy? In places. This collection of short plays doesn’t really come close to creating genuine terror in its audience, but then nor does it seem to be trying to: it seems to prize the nervous, slightly grossed out chuckle more highly than the scream of real dread and distress.
This peripatetic annual celebration of the macabre and unsettling, last seen at Southwark Playhouse, has been rehomed in Soho Theatre’s basement cabaret space and this relocation seems to have informed the production as a whole because the musical interludes are given almost as much time and room as the plays themselves. The songs, co-written by Desmond O’Connor and Cabaret Whore, Sarah-Louise Young, are spectacularly off-colour: a country and western ditty about abortion, a ballad about anorexics in love. The resulting laughter is often halting and awkward, slow to flow, arriving in guilty little bursts. But by addressing and involving the audience, the songs knit together a production that might otherwise have felt too tonally choppy, too disparate in approach and execution.
Of all the playwrights on the bill, Lucy Kirkwood has taken this merging of music and theatre furthest. Her contribution to the evening is a piece of burlesque, conceived with performer Eleanor Buchan, in which a be-tasselled dancer falls under her own dark spell. It juxtaposes a jokey, nod-wink style with something distinctly icky but doesn’t really leave itself anywhere to go once the premise has been established.
The opening piece, Dave Florez’s The Waiting Mortuary, is similarly stuck. Two nineteenth century doctors debate whether the body laid out on the slab before them has actually expired. The tone of the play – more of a sketch really – is weirdly pitched, a pastiche that seems unsure quite how seriously it wants the audience to take it. Carl Grose’s comic verse monologue, Wormy Close, performed by Amanda Lawrence achieves a far better balance between the horrible and the comic. It’s a silly but endearing piece, a kind of gory Jackanory that benefits from Lawrence’s strong sense of timing and delivery. Tom Holloway’s play, If I Stay I Would Only Be in Your Way, is a two-hander that owes a debt to Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters. It’s more genuinely unsettling but it over-plays its hand. There’s something to be said for taking something beyond what appears to be its natural end point and stretching it further than good sense or taste might dictate, but it’s not a gamble that quite pays off, and the resulting laughter is fitful and diminishing.
The most unnerving piece of the night, and also the most successful, is Jack Thorne’s The Gong. Thorne is a writer who knows how to create tension, who understands how to feed information to his audience in the most potent way possible before confirming their worst fears. A torch-lit Ciaran Kellgren stalks around the room, smoking intensely as he recounts his experience of being working class at Cambridge University, and the lengths he will go to fit in, to prove he belongs. It’s a jarring and unpleasant piece, and one that achieves in words what the other plays never quite manage even with all their splatter and seepage and shrieking.