Horror is a genre that has pervaded human civilisation since the dawn of time. Stories told around primordial camp fires that connect with a culture’s foundations myths often feature great monsters, ghoulish figures and celestial spirits. Indeed, the concept of an afterlife is something that defines us from other animals; the cognitive ability to think beyond our present plane of existence and to consider what lies within the unknown realms post-death. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, it is something that has been considered and reconsidered across the millennia, and so too has the possibility of communicating with those that dwell within this beyond space. Ghosts, spirits and revenants have shaped many a mythology, and indeed, the horror genre has thrived upon the infinite possibilities of what could happen if one could interact with the dead. Yet, perhaps the most interesting ghost narratives are those that use their spooky subject matter as a lens through which to examine the darker, more uncomfortable sides of humanity. Recent horror hits like Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass have used the genre tropes and their creepy goings on as a way to delve into discussions about death, grief, family and religion in more nuanced and riveting fashion than many straight dramas. Indeed, within this vein of metaphor and allegory, the new creative collaboration from Apricity Theatre, Black Dog Productions and Dumb Blonde Theatre, The White Heart Inn, uses the horror genre as a way to explore morality, religious repression, generational trauma and bigotry in similarly fascinating fashion.
Written by Tiffany Rhodes, CJ Turner-McMullan and Russell Eccleston, and directed by Emily Malloy, The White Heart Inn follows the events of a night in the play’s titular setting. Situated in a remote, marshy corner of Cornwall, the White Hart Inn plays host to a gaggle of overnight guests – newly pregnant young couple, Otis and Melissa (Saili Katebe and CJ Turner-McMullan), ghost hunting couple, Kate and Lily (Tiffany Rhodes and Alicia Pollard), and the forever inebriated lad, Axel (Stan Elliot) – all of whom are presided over by the Inn’s twin owners, Bethel and Hector (Matilda Dickinson and Russell Eccleston). As a near biblical storm sets in, the night quickly falls into chaos as strange and seemingly supernatural occurrences begin to happen and the Inn’s eccentric owners become increasingly sinister. No one is safe from the horrors that have lain dormant in the White Heart Inn for decades, but are these horrors the work of paranormal forces or something more terrifyingly earthly?
The White Heart Inn is a very well crafted ghost story. Finn MacNeil’s sound design coupled with Esther Warren’s lighting beautifully evokes the tense, foreboding atmosphere of this dark thriller. So within this framework of creepy flickering lights, rain ASMR and otherworldly whispers, the cast thrive in their varied characterisations of the play’s inhabitants. Alicia Pollard balances Lily’s intensity and vulnerability with masterful skill, while Saili Katebe’s Otis and CJ Turner-McMullan’s Melissa glow with natural chemistry and charm. Tiffany Rhodes and Stan Elliot play with the light and shade of comic relief that transgresses into the dark and the violent, revealing the hidden depths within their characters, Kate and Axel, that truly pays off in the play’s second and third act climaxes. Yet, of course, a horror narrative would fall flat without its main antagonists. The clever switch that happens between Matilda Dickinson’s Bethel and Russell Eccleston’s Hector is a brilliant homage to the classic horror movie twist; as Eccleston’s imposing and blunt Hector reveals his inner gentleness, Dickinson’s meek and nervous Bethel blooms into disturbing malevolence. They are the dark and twisted duality at the heart of the White Hart Inn, and as the play winds down in its final moments, the true horror of the piece is revealed in all its bleak and haunting glory.
Featuring the brilliantly choreographed fight sequences you’d expect from a project involving Black Dog Productions and the precise direction of Dumb Blonde Theatre, this is a ghost story that challenges its audience to consider what is truly terrifying. While certain pacing elements could be tightened up in the play’s final moments, this is a perfect theatrical outing for any horror fan.