The Dead Hand at Greenwich Theatre raises more titters than screams

PUBLISHED: 14:07 02 November 2010

David Martin & Nicholas Gilbrook

David Martin & Nicholas Gilbrook


An adaptation of a Victorian thriller straddled comedy and horror uncomfortably

Watching a dramatised Victorian ghost story seemed like the perfect way of avoiding those pesky trick or treaters out on Hallowe’en night.

Thus it was that I joined the audience at the Greenwich Theatre last Sunday for Rumpus Theatre Company’s production of The Dead Hand by Wilkie Collins.

Most famous for The Woman in White and The Moonstone, Collins also wrote a great many short stories with supernatural or thriller overtones. But despite the title, The Dead Hand is one of his less sensational tales, written in 1857 and adapted here by David Gilbrook.

David Martin played the innocent traveller Arthur, who finds himself sharing a room with a corpse. “The quietest man I ever came across,” declares the innkeeper. But this particular corpse just won’t stay still. And when a doctor (Nicholas Gilbrook) calls to examine him, the truth is revealed — giving the audience their first big jump of the night.

Amanda Howard was Arthur’s fiancée Mary, doomed to suffer a fate worse than death by a Voodoo curse. Cue coffins, skeletons and red-eyed skulls. Not to mention the exquisite terror of premature burial.

Although I enjoyed the evening and thought the performances were all excellent, there were problems.

For a start: too much talking about the horrors to come and not enough showing of them. At almost two hours, the piece felt bloated, especially at the start. Gilbrook, who also directed, should not have been afraid of paring down his source material; it is, after all, quality not quantity that people remember.

Secondly, the additions to Collins’ story had the unintentional effect of provoking laughter rather than screams. In this post-Mighty Boosh world, the sight of a dancing skeleton in a top hat is simply not scary (if it ever was). Reference to a “Mojo hand” provided more unintentional mirth for those familiar with Austin Powers movies.

Thirdly, although the set design was good — scarlet curtains, blood-red carpet — at least one key shock was botched by clumsy preparation. Like a magician explaining his tricks before he performs them, it destroyed the illusion.

It would be quite easy to turn this into a pleasantly spooky little show, but in its current form it falls uneasily between comedy and horror, satisfying neither camp. With an excitably captive audience on All Hallows Eve, it really shouldn’t have produced quite so many belly laughs…

The next production at Greenwich Theatre will be The Games, a comedy about three athletes poised to compete in the largest sporting event of the ancient world, from 4-6 November. Tickets: 020 8858 7755.

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