By Jason Rip
Directed by Jeff Culbert
Played by Tyson Bree, Dave Menard, Janice Johnston, Dan Ebbs, Herb Bayley, Chris Bancroft, Karen Winfield, Dan Roberson and Michel Carreau
A London Fringe Festival Production
October 2 — October 31, 2008
The coming of October means the spirits once again are appearing in the Downtown London Core. This autumn tradition presents another entertaining show under new management, although the staging and format changes are sometimes less than satisfactory.
This year, the traditional hosts, murderers Dr. Thomas Cream and Phoebe Campbell, guide the audience through the London core to introduce a lurid series of tales of London’s past. In addition to the classics, the new ghosts introduced include Slippery Jack, a perverted burglar who became one out of a dare, but became corrupted with a foot fetish he could not resist. There is also Cornelius Burley, a simpleton small time crook who became the scapegoat of a far greater injustice that tortured him more than anyone wanted and Effie Moss, a 19th century medium whose chicanery for her channelling is comically amateurish.
Deliciously dark and foreboding as ever, the Stroll players weave a fine macabre tale of the local supernatural with practiced skill. In addition to the tried and true stories, each of the new ones carries a special flavour to them that spices up the familiar show. For example, the Slippery Jack appearance is more like a tale of a silly darer with just the right suggestion of fetish perversion to allow Chris Bancroft to play the character with appropriate creepiness while taking surprisingly effective advantage of the nearby foliage for his entrance. Herb Bayley works his story with a carefully measured pathos at the Old Courthouse as you hear his tale of barely understood injustice that comes off as quietly more disturbing than the others in its broader implications. By contrast, the Effie Moss spot is welcome comedy relief as Janice Johnston who plays a medium who apparently can not pull off a convincing channelling scam to fool anyone with half a brain to save her life.
Like last year, the show is ably hosted by Josh Cottrell and Nicole St. John as the aforementioned hosts. Cottrell boasts an excellent entrance for his section in particular and his superbly cutting asides as his character maneuvers the audience fill up the travel time with a sinister grace. Likewise, St. John has a charming rough-hewn country charm even as she reveals the bloody climax of her life. Of the returning character, Dan Ebbs is the most impressive of the newer players of this production as Ambrose Small as he imbues the lecherous impresario with a lusty energy that comes off as teasingly charming in his own way. In addition, a little artful prop placement further enhances Dave Menard’s already good performance as one of the notorious Black Donnellys into a memorably grisly show.
However, as much as the players pull off fine performances, some of the changes to the show are wholly unsatisfactory. For instance, while Cottrell has the aforementioned good entrance at the church in the darkened room, St. John and Tyson Bree as Campbell’s lover Tom Coyle have theirs fatally undercut immediately afterwards. Somehow, telling a lurid tale of betrayal and murder in the 1800s loses much of its atmosphere in a brightly lit room under florescent lamps. The real mystery is why they couldn’t be bothered to at least move the audience outside. Also, the Sarah Harris section at Eldon House is performed outside the grounds and again much of its impact is lost under harsh street lamps while the Ambrose Small one would have been more effective with the character closer to the Grand Theatre.
While outside realities can explain some of these unfortunate changes, the elimination of the Stroll’s intermission at one of the local eating or drinking establishment patios is inexcusable. The nature of the show demands a common meeting area such as a bar or a restaurant where the audience can relax and socialize while waiting for their fellows to rendezvous for the host exchange. Without it, the hosts have to frantically improvise during any hookup delays with pointless stalling. That is an awkward waste of energy and time for all concerned and I find it hard to believe that there is no downtown establishment that is willing to be that pitstop this year.
While the production suffers for these ill-advised changes, the damage is certainly not fatal. In that sense, it emphasizes the ghostly resilience of a show that has become a welcome annual tradition with downtown London as its stage.