7 April 2012

Mary Rose at the Riverside

Mary Rose is a dark ghost story that thrills and chills expertly.

This is a little surprising as it is written by J. M. Barrie who brought us Tinker Bell and Never Never Land.

This unexpected conjunction happened at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith which is working hard to remain its title as my favourite theatre that it won precisely because it puts on unexpected plays like this.

Having changed my free-seating preference from the first row to the third I was thrown in to confusion by finding both the third and first rows occupied. So I found myself in the second row. Two is the new three which was the new one.

It always pays to look at the stage in picking a seat and this time the layout suggested a left of centre seat and that was duly taken.

The dark stage showed an abandoned room with dust sheets over the few pieces of furniture.

The play started as it went on. Weirdly.

The first sign that it had started was some wordless singing from both wings. This grew in volume and the figures responsible slowly eased in to view.

They were dressed in primitive clothing and markings suggesting that they belong to a previous time.

The story begins near its chronological end with a young man returning to the empty house where he had lived as a small bot before running away to distant places to seek his fortune.

Alone in the house is the housekeeper who is reluctant to explain why the house is empty or to let the young man explore some of the rooms.

She departs to make a cup of tea leaving him to sit in the room. The mysterious figures appear through the walls and windows and surround the man as he sits but unseen by him.

And that sets the tone of the play. It remains dark and mysterious throughout. You know bad things have happened, or will happen, or both, but you do not want to move from your seat or avert your gaze from the stage.

We then travel back to almost the beginning of the story when the house is bright, airy and occupied. We meet a middle-aged married couple about to welcome a prospective suitor for their young daughter Mary Rose. They agree that any prospective husband must be told of Mary's past, a past that she herself does not know.

Once the suitor makes his intentions known the father explains that as a young girl Mary Rose disappeared when on holiday in Scotland only to reappear in the same spot days later without any recollection of having been away.

The story builds from there becoming darker and stranger. Along the way we learn more about Mary Rose and her family but little about the events on Scotland or the figures that seem to be associated with that place.

There are some lighter moments along the way, even some giggle-inducing humour, especially when the father is discussing his collection of prints with a friend which always ends with an argument that his wife has to resolve.

These lighter moments are incidental to the main plot, other than to show that Mary Rose's home life was normal. The light moments also help to make the more frequent dark moments seem darker.

It's the dark moments that make the play and it's the staging and direction that turn them in to something rather special. The mysterious primitives and their chanting are part of this but there is more to it than that. A lot of effort has been spent pulling the parts of the production together and the whole works magnificently.

Mary Rose is an unusual tale told unusually. It scares, delights and thrills. You leave drained, relieved, confused, unsettled and immensely satisfied.

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