Review: Sycamore Grove (The Banshee Labyrinth)
Suburban dreams and supernatural happenings in the Banshee’s Basement
It is unfair to be cynical about a festival I have never attended before, but can you blame me? Horror theatre is a rare sight because it is hard to execute convincingly or originally. Since so many of our touch points for the genre come from cinema, which has an easier time creating monsters and hiding them just out of sight, translating those to the stage is challenging, especially on a small budget. So the idea of a Fringe-like festival of entirely horror-themed shows sounded to me like a theatrical graveyard. Nevertheless, I came to see Sycamore Grove, about a couple who begin toying with the occult in pursuit of the perfect suburban life. Perhaps I got lucky with my first visit to the festival, but I am pleased to say I have been thoroughly corrected.
What makes Sycamore Grove work as a horror performance is that writer Daniel Williams and director Liam Rees recognise the limitations of creating a horror performance in a pub basement and emphasise the aspects of the medium that work best. There aren’t any moments that will make you jump in your seat, but there are many that will make you dread what is coming next in the story. It could be criticised for not fleshing out the threat exactly. We’re told about “spells and symbols” but never told their origin, which makes the script seem like an outline rather than the final product. At the same time, saying less is what makes the show’s addiction allegory so effective. The more that “magic” becomes a presence in their lives, the less they want to say the word out loud.
Although the premise for each character is not complex, the cast does a great job at making them lifelike and investable. Conor O'Dwyer is fantastic as Ben, who is enticed little by little to use black magic in everyday life. His performance seems a little timid at first, but it pays off to see how well he plays vulnerability when his character is faced with the consequences of his actions. But Rebecca Wilkie really steals the show as bitchy neighbour Charlotte. To see her perform is to feel like you are seeing her in a Hollywood blockbuster, not a basement in Edinburgh.
We are some way off from theatre developing its own vocabulary and tropes for horror but shows like Sycamore Grove do at least prove its potential when the emphasis is put on the right place. You don’t miss the jump scares or CGI monsters when you have creepy storytelling, visible fear on stage, and a well-told allegory for the real-life horrors of addiction. Four stars.
Sycamore Grove has completed its run at The Banshee Labyrinth