The White Heart Inn

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.

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I love dark theatre. Theatre that wades into the murkier aspects of human experience, that is challenging and nuanced in its examination of cultural taboos fascinates me. Yet, when it comes to the examination of cruelty and violence through a moralistic lens, things can become tricky. Humanity’s propensity towards violence and war has shaped much of our history. For many of us, our history education is split into chapters of the numerous wars and battles that have been fought over the centuries, and given the male dominance at play within the politics that drive these events, it wouldn’t be completely unfair to say that violence is so often associated with masculinity. Indeed, within the patriarchal binary of the masculine and the feminine, femininity is traditionally aligned with passivity. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule – some of the most famous women in history (Elizabeth Báthory, Boudicca, Joan of Arc) are remembered because of their “unfeminine” association with violence – but the fact that they are exceptional is precisely what makes them memorable. Even now, the idea of women being cruel and physically violent is shocking to many of us and the examination of such characters can be very unsettling as it brings into question many deep held cultural assumptions about gender. In their new play, Submission, Black Dog Productions tackle the question of how far people, particularly women, are willing to go in order survive.

Written by company co-founder, Alicia Pollard, and directed by Tiffany Rhodes, Submission introduces us to the grim confinement of a mysterious room in which two young women are trapped. From the get go, Girl (Ebony Cassie Corrick) and Baby (Alicia Pollard) are forced to engage in increasingly barbaric puzzles which, if they fail to solve, will result in death or electrocution via the shock collars they are locked into. Neither woman can remember their identity before their entry into this chamber of horrors, and when a young man, Caspar (Russell Eccleston), is thrown into the mix, the paranoia these women face mounts to a climax of horrifying violence.

It is a concept that many horror films have tackled, and indeed, the writing is self aware in its connection to movies such as Saw and Cube. The psychological toll and horror of these characters’ situation is beautifully captured by the actors, with Ebony Cassie Corrick and Alicia Pollard bringing some tour-de-force performances as Girl and Baby; Corrick’s determination and vulnerability as Girl is countered expertly by Pollard’s brittle and unnerving portrayal as Baby. Tiffany Rhodes brilliantly plays with the claustrophobia of the play’s setting, moving her actors like chess pieces in the grimy, bone-chillingly bleak room that is these characters’ prison cell. Yet, as the violence unfolds and the sadistic manipulation at play is revealed, Submissions final moments don’t quite deliver the satisfying deconstruction of the horror sub-genre it inhabits. What sets this piece a part is its focus on the women in it. So often in these narratives, women characters are reduced to the archetype of the victim and are not afforded the emotional complexity of their male counterparts. They lack the light and shade of morality that many male characters in horror are afforded, and while Submission attempts to subvert this, the characters are not given the space in which to reveal the depth of these complexities. It felt somewhat as if too much time had been afforded to the horror of the situation rather than the psychological subtexts at play between the characters. It is a well crafted piece of horror, but one that does not quite break the mould.

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The Curse of the Sapphire Blade

Sometimes, what we need most from theatre is escape. Escape and entertainment. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t demand theatre that challenges us and makes us reevaluate our own outlooks on the world, and indeed, many a thought provoking piece can be in equal parts joyous and amusing as they are self analysing and provocative. Even within the realms of high fantasy and adventure, genres which are often perceived as frivolous and more action driven as opposed to thought driven, there still remains the latent politics that pervades all narratives. In these imaginary worlds where the lore and history is created and faceted by human imagination, what its creator chooses to include or exclude within these conjured realms speaks to the ideologies of that creator. For me, fantasy and science-fiction have been aspirational genres, as much about holding up a mirror to our own world as it is about pondering over the what ifs of our history if it had taken an alternative route. This, in itself, is a form of a escapism, to retire from ones every day concerns about the state of geopolitics or the climate crisis and to immerse oneself in an alternate reality where the divisions between good and evil are not quite so murky. With Black Dog Production’s new show, The Curse of the Sapphire Blade, this much needed escapism in these still uncertain times is wonderfully realised.

Directed by Lex Kaby and written by Russell Eccleston, The Curse of the Sapphire Blade transports us to a magical realm of pixies, monster hunters and terrifying beasts. As the sweet, though rather hapless bounty hunter, Rivac (Russell Eccleston), stumbles across a mysterious man (Patrick Withey) in a forest clearing, we are propelled on a journey of discovery and swashbuckling adventure. Along the way we meet the brash warrior, Johanna (Alicia Pollard), the forgetful but fiery pixie, Isadora (Tiffany Rhodes), and the stoic mercenary, Nox (CJ Turner-McMullan), and what begins as a quest to defeat a monstrous sphinx turns into a quest of self realisation and the forging of the unbreakable bonds of friendship.

It isn’t often one comes across theatrical fantasy dramas. Usually, the genre of fantasy is reserved for the seasonal productions of pantomimes, but Black Dog Productions take the trappings of high fantasy and propels them to brilliant theatrical heights. The set is truly magical, with its central tree constructed of ropes, cloth and leaves bringing a rustic, almost Kneehigh flavour to the stage, and Esther Warren’s lighting design completes the mystical atmosphere of the play’s world. Within this sumptuous backdrop, the ensemble cast thrives, and the distinctively different, larger than life characters are given the grounding and brevity needed to avoid falling into ludicrous melodrama. Patrick Withey steals the show with his crackpot old-but-young Archelon who feels like a cross between Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Captain Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Indeed, the utter conviction and focus with which each character is portrayed is what drives the heart of this piece; the cast’s incredible talent is utilised with expert skill, bringing every facet of their characters to life. Of course, being a Black Dog Production, one should always expect beautifully choreographed fight sequences, and The Curse of the Sapphire Blade does not disappoint, with its myriad of different weaponry and fighting styles – this is a drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

As COVID reentry debut shows go, Black Dog Productions have truly outdone themselves. With this brilliant, heady mix of comedy, action and stellar performances, this is the perfect show with which to shrug off the stresses of our pandemic world, and immerse yourself in a piece of joyous escapism.

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When going to see a Black Dog Production, one should always be prepared for intense psychological drama, an ode to Americana, and finely choreographed fight scenes. So it is no surprise that their latest production, Savage, has all this in spades.

Set in the 80s within the confines of a seedy, macho office, Savage follows the enigmatically named Apollo as she battles to save her sister, Artemis, from the clutches of the lascivious Janus and his mysterious client after Apollo’s botched embezzlement of a large sum of the ‘Client’s’ funds. What ensues is a drama filled with twists and turns, shocking reveals and inspired examinations of the tropes often found within psychological thrillers both in film and theatre.

This is a truly slick piece of theatre, with excellent performances from all the cast. Sami Edrus’ Janus oozes with chauvinistic smarm, his cokehead energy juxtaposing with the still, controlled tension of Charlotte Turner-McMullan’s Apollo and Njeko Katebe’s monolithic presence as the Bodyguard. Yet the drama truly sparks into life with the presence of Matilda Dickinson’s Artemis, whose keen intelligence and vibrancy of character brings the brutal stakes of the narrative into stark clarity. It is in her interactions with Janus, Apollo and the Bodyguard that the emotional depths of all these characters are brought into the light to be examined and scrutinised. Indeed, the greatest strength of this play is in writer Russell Eccleston’s refusal to degrade any of the characters into one dimensional stereotypes; each of the characters, despite their great flaws, are allowed complex inner lives which are portrayed with nuanced care by this talented cast.

While this show certainly evokes tones of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Eccleston takes an interestingly feminist perspective on the tropes of the thriller genre. The character of the Secretary, played with beguiling charm by Katherine Aldridge, reveals the inherent sexism of this so often male-driven genre. As great artistic institutions like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are being scrutinised for their lack of inclusion of female artists, Savage offers the female driven thriller to be just as (pun intended) thrilling as any male driven narrative.

This is a show which, while not overtly political, is answering the call of the times for more diversity in the stories we tell, making this both an entertaining and relevant piece of theatre.

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