Horror Theatre

Gravest Fears – Theatre Review- University of Sheffield (29 Oct 23)

We are off to see Nunkie Productions ( touring show of “Gravest Fears” as part of their M R James Project, spreading ghost stories through the land; those wonderous things that thankfully don’t ever die. The show is in association with the Enable Us Project at the University of Sheffield ( which has been showing some excellent shows as part of it’s programme.

Our return to the University of Sheffield Drama Studio is a suitable one for this show as the venue isn’t too much of a behemoth, open space that could (without modification) leave you feeling on the outside. This is a contained show that is helped by you feeling you are in the room with the narrator as if in modest urban townhouse.

Gravest Fears is a show structured around two stories from M R James which are narrated by Robert Lloyd Parry. Parry looks the part and has considerable pedigree in this department having playing him for Mark Gatiss’ BBC2 documentary and having performer and reported on across teh United States. As he sits in the chair he has the feeling of a storyteller comfortable in his own domain, yet portrayals the slight unease at the subjects of the stories well. He pour his spirits next to his table festooned with picture frames and other paraphenalia of a man of antiquary and delivers the stories true to that of a seasoned storyteller, not just someone reading from a page. There is a light the actor and the table, and little else needed here; the listener has to imagine the goings on much like they were reading the book themselves.

The first story is “The Stalls of Barchester”. Parry here is performing as the scholar Dr Black who is looking through an old diary and other assorted pieces from Dr Haynes, an Archdeacon who died at the Barchester Cathedral approximately 50 years ago (to the early 1800s). Once the evidence starts getting read, the reconstruction of events begins and what initially seems like the unlucky death of a previous Archdeacon, becomes something with a much creepier undertone.

Firstly, Parry certainly suits the part. “The Stalls of Barchester” is a story that in particular that highlights M R James’ scholarly interests and his family involvement in the church setting. Parry brings this element to the fore in his characterisation with his quiet enthusiasm for finding the 1814 records and a kind of driving mix of agnosticism of circumstance and the academic air of someone who wants to study the phenomena in front of their eyes and apply reason. The actor also carries the slightly dry love of the details, facts and biblical references you would expect to be close to M R James. The strength of this story for us is the little elements that hint at a pervading folk horror, the memories in our environment (here the Hanging Tree and intentions of the wood carver). The notion that one’s own moral failings causes Dr Haynes to be at the mercy of these strange circumstances is interesting and reminds a lot of the morality at the centre of fairy tales and the Old Testament.

Next there is “An Episode of Cathedral History”. This story looks at a mysterious tomb that is discovered in the church in the background to a plot where the Archdeacon Burscrough is forcing through renovation to Southminster Cathedral in line with a Gothic Revival style. This one shows the range of Parry as he inhabits the characters of the everyday verger (Mr Worby) both as his adult self and as a child getting up to mischief (and seeing more than he should) as well as a rather bullheaded, pompous Archdeadon Burscrough and a historian husband-wife team that go to write up the progress of the renovation. Parry gets into the spirit of things and lingers quite well in the right places such as where we peer into a coffin, look in the darkness or feel the pure disbelief of Worby’s father at what is seen. This story is the more pacy and immediate of the two.

It is a good idea to arrange the stories in this fashion. The “Stalls of Barchester” is like a details-heavy reflection of M R James mind and life with it already happening and the main character investigating like M R James himself looking into old literary sources. The second story is you discovering things as they enfold, a larger set of characters, and plenty to energise the audience as the tension grows; it is effective being after the intermission.

In summary, this performance brings to mind exactly the atmosphere and method of delivery that M R James would have intended and desired. It does not have the flash of elaborate set-pieces or technology, multiple actors or extensive attempts to rework the content in new ways; but it doesn’t need to. To say it is simply telling a story isn’t really doing it justice. It’s focus on the narrator allows the audience to imagine with their inner eye the horror, and Parry’s role as the gatekeeper to this old time horror on this wet and cold night is the perfect one.

Classic Horror Theatre

Haunted – “Influential horror stories dug up and made fresh” – The University of Sheffield Drama Studio (1st April 2023)

When it comes to yarn spinning the best type (in our opinion) is, quite explicitely, the one involving reading from a book or telling a grand tale. Knitting a jumper seems rather complicated and in folklore so many bad things seem to happen when you start spinning that wheel. That being said there is that familiarity in a favourite jumper, especially the one that appears after seemingly doing commando-ops in the bottom of your clothes drawer. In a strange way this comfort is rather like that of classic ghost stories, especially when their form and idea is respun in stories of the modern day.

Made in conjunction with The Book of Darkness and Light/LittleMighty/Harrogate Theatre, penned and performed by Adam Z. Robinson, and showcased as part of Enable US (which joyfully brings “New professional performances” to the old Baptist setting) “Haunted” is a play directed by Dick Bonham which we recently saw that showcased a performance of classic stories “The Upper Berth” (F. Marion Crawford, 1894) and “The Monkey’s Paw” (W.W Jacobs, 1902).

The Monkey’s Paw itself is close to the consciousness with such recent adaptations as The Simpsons, and (our personal favourite) Inside Number Nine, so watching a seed of these ideas being played back is a treat meaning that “Haunted” occupies a space which hits the sweet spot in the mind where your favourite spooky feelings dwell.

It all starts with hard liquor from the decanter, as our narrator gets a case of the shaky hands and tells us that “nothing will get him back on thatship”. “The Upper Berth” is a great story about a passenger on a cruise ship who ends up staying in a room which all the staff speak ill of due to the fate of several of those who were boarded there on previous voyages. The adaptation really keeps some of the best descriptions that set the scene, e.g. “sad coloured curtains”, his sensory description of the “wet” floor, and the individual running like “the shadow of a galloping horse”, and the performance around the spookiness of the “port hole” is memorable. In “The Monkey’s Paw”, we get a different story about a family who acquire a magical artifact from a Sergeant-Major returning from service India that grants wishes; but when has that ever been unproblematic? Robinson’s range is good as he moves from the part of an educated, supernatural sceptic to the Northern, working class father of the story in “The Monkey’s Paw”, who seems more than willing to accept and get his hands dirty in that superstitious, dark unknown. Other side characters such as the doctor on the boat are effectively performed allowing us reminisce of how an exasperated, worried and educated man of science of the time might be like too.

The constrasting themes of the perils of the curiosity of the scientific method (The Upper Berth) vs the curiosity of the chance to cheat life and fate itself are gruesomely desperate and fun themes. “The Monkey’s Paw” is great for what it doesn’t show too as well are left to imagine the grisly “machinery” death of one of the characters. It’s fascinating to see here how the promise of wealth even corrupts those with modest ideas about improving their station in life but also the pain and strength of avoiding temptation and trying to right a terrible wrong. Robinson switches between roles well, they all have distinct voices and idioms that make them recognisable. The only confusion for us is when Mr White (in the Monkey’s Paw) seems to refer to his wife as “Mother”. This could be narratively simpler for the audience to follow or it is possible we are losing our own internal plot at this point.

Credit must be given to the BSL interpreter (whose name I did not get unfortunately) whose forlorn and haunted expressions accompanied the signings and kept the grim atmosphere and tension high. The set is recognisable and effective in it’s choice of furnishings (Steve Watling/Charlotte Woods, technical manager) with the ghostly, greyed pictures in frames and domesticity of “The Monkey’s Paw” compared with the rolling netting, old case and dusty bottles of the marine nightmare. The lighting was moody and communicated the bleakness of the dark well (particularly as part of The Upper Berth). At times there were loud sound spikes for the jump scares. These were quite successful, we did jump at least once during the show after a scary build up.

These two stories are a great showcase of presentation, performance and writing. “Haunted” is the unfolding dread of the unknown and the dangers of human choice and inquisitiveness when perhaps things, “should just be left alone”. Old in subject yet lovingly adapted (and inclusive), it was a night to remind of the joys of storytelling and bone-chilling horror.

Photos by Charlotte Woods,

Check out the rest of Enable Us’s programme here, theres some great stuff.

For more details of projects and artists LittleMighty support, click here.

For enquiries around covering horror, folk horror theatre or folk music, please email us on

Appalachian Dance Folk Music Theatre

“Finding Folk” play – Sheffield University Drama Studio (5th August 2021) A Review

So after a pretty big hiatus for live events, we found ourselves trundling off to the Sheffield University Drama Studio to see the latest play “Finding Folk” by Phoebe Ophelia (

Centred on the life experiences of Ophelia (a young Lancashire woman who we find has suffered trauma within her family), the scene sets on an overall green aesthetic with a rocking chair, some cool matching jade shoes and a quiet, gentle banjo tune strumming within the confines of the old Baptist Church. 

An audience member’s appreciation for “Finding Folk” will depend on what they intend for their evening. After all, “Finding Folk” can be thought of in three parts. It is:  (i.) song and dance inspired by Appalachian music and performed consistently well throughout the set  (ii) a drama, with aspects of the performer’s life physically re-enacted with all the pain and joys that comes with it and (iii.) a creative and arts-based therapy for the performer and (to some extent), the audience, which both seeks to explore the nature of the therapist-client relationship. There is some great singing and dancing here that shines like fresh fruit in the midday sun. This is due to Ophelia’s combined optimism and commitment during these song and dance moments. You get to hear the odd old-time ditty at certain intervals (such as “happy go lucky me”) coming over the waves in the more cheerful sections of the play, and this is all good, but the crux and main push of the play seems to sit more with the second and third points. There is a reason for this.

In keeping with the play being a piece of creative therapy, “Finding Folk” is quite vague with the details. There are quick snapshots, like thin slices of cheese, where things are clearer than others such as Phoebe’s representation of her mother’s ill health and being “on the waiting list”. This is an especially visceral scene, capturing the spinning wheel of ill thoughts that repeat and repeat in their destruction. It is an uncomfortable watch, but only because it is so raw and believable. There are other occasions which are seemingly happy but because of the “show-not-tell” nature, it is not fully clear whether it is a happy moment. At one point there is an interlude where Ophelia meets a man in a club and she spends the night with him. It seems like the warm beam of a lighthouse lighting up a foggy mind but it ends with a fall (literal and mental). Is it a negative event in itself, or does her mental health and doubts catch up with her? Perhaps this lack of clarity is the art itself as therapy investigates multiple truths and when mental issues are thrown in it can lead to the blurring of perception when they interact with memory, even before introducing them in the art space. 

This lack of precise details seems like a necessary characteristic of the first half of the play. The music and dance is a vehicle for the performer’s memories rather than what many might feel the key subject of discussion is. “Finding Folk” does not describe the healing power of the banjo as such, so you may be waiting for the epiphany moment when the banjo bursts into Phoebe’s life and brings respite to her feelings but along with some excellent dance steps, it is just kind of “there”, quietly dropped in from the beginning and allowed to take root through the course of things.

When the performance ends and there is a 45 minute discussion about the work which is preceded by a relaxation technique to open up the feelings of the audience. We wondered how this would play out as in our work life we encounter these aspects of mental health regularly and see the importance of discussing interventions and therapy. That being said, the notion of using the second half to ask specific questions to clear up and build on what has been shown in the first half was not a part of the performance which we were fully invested in. We applaud the innovation here, and enjoyed the discussion but would have preferred a longer, perhaps more traditional performance with further narration that strongly delved into the central character “Finding Folk”, as in the title. Like we said, the love of folk is implied in the performance as the artist does not reference it much. This is especially the case when the first question of the discussion is an audience member asked “how” the central character “found folk”. Some will be fully involved and intrigued, whereas other audiences might find this interactive part too intrusive and left-field for their tastes.

That being said, it is a moving and valuable piece of work which excels in its physicality in performance and music. Heart-felt and brave, it sets out  as an exercise in catharsis and exploration of trauma, memory and art and manages this (in large part due to Ophelia’s excellent physicality). Those with a large interest in folk music might want to check they are ready for an evening of more introspection and experimentation than they are expecting before venturing into the night to purchase a ticket.