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Ghost Bell at the OSO Arts Centre | Review

Ghost Bell
Ghost Bell

As the team behind this production of Ghost Bell were keen to point out, the performance I attended was effectively a dress rehearsal rather than the planned opening night show, for reasons we need not bother going into here. I therefore feel obliged to set aside some minor stumbles in the delivery of the dialogue, as well as some work that needs to be done with the lighting, though I hasten to add the show chose well in illuminating scenes a little too much, as opposed to too little.

Some video projections also help set the time of day, or indeed night, but ultimately don’t tell the audience anything that couldn’t have been picked up simply by hearing the script come to life. An example: in the first scene, Joey (David Shortland) moderates his voice to tell someone on his mobile that it’s two in the morning. Later, references to ‘last night’ unambiguously mean the scenes in question take place the following day.

The ‘ghost bell’ of the play’s title refers to a large bell within what used to be a monastery, which became famous in medieval times because of, well, events (the details of which would be giving too much away). Nonetheless, the link between the story, which Debbie (Zoë Arden) tells her younger sister Hally (Danielle Thompson) at length, and the rest of the play’s narrative is tenuous at best and utterly superfluous at worst. The audience is reminded of the bell story at the very end of the evening’s proceedings, suggesting that there may be hope and redemption for the maligned Joey after all.

The whole show is set in the pub garden of ‘The Griffin’, in Indian Queens, a village in Cornwall. The Cornish accents are, albeit to my London ears, accurate, except when they are being exaggerated for comic effect. Joey’s friend Matt (Scott Tilley) has a comfortable lifestyle, at least relative to Joey, who at one point reveals he is on Jobseeker’s Allowance. The audience is repeatedly made aware that this is a Bank Holiday weekend (presumably the one towards the end of August), as though this setup is akin to Christmas, where family members who do not generally find themselves on friendly terms with one another must exercise superhuman amounts of tolerance and patience.

And the characters keep coming – Pauline (Liz Williams) goes on a tirade about standards of cleanliness (or the apparent lack thereof), but as her husband Alan (Nigel Cole) points out, The Griffin is solely in his name. Brendan (Andy Hewitt) sits upstage at a small metal table, busy with chess games in which he appears to be competing against himself. Burling (Harry Medawar) is a pub regular, but never stays for that long, as he enjoys pursuing outdoor activities, while Barbara Dwyer (Roberta Cole), almost immediately nicknamed ‘barbed wire’ (I thought it was amusing, anyway) is a solicitor with good news.

Most of the characters’ stories are developed sufficiently for audiences to get to know them properly. It may be frustrating to witness a story being cut short by an interruption, but it is also realistic – it is simply not reasonable to expect every conversation in a pub garden to run its course unimpeded by a third party, be it another pub customer or an incoming mobile telephone call. What one may think is the play’s antagonist turns out to be rather pleasant; likewise, one of the good guys ends up being a social pariah within the group and is repeatedly told to leave before he eventually does so.

Other plays are referenced in this production – Joey alone recites Brutus’ speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act VI, Scene III) in the first half, and in the second the audience is either treated or subjected to one of the title character’s soliloquies in Hamlet (Act II Scene II). There were nice (for me, at least) to listen to but one wonders what direct relevance they really had to the plot of Ghost Bell, aside from rather unnecessarily reminding the audience repeatedly about Joey’s ambitions to attend drama school. Some other references, such as one about the Tennessee Williams play Orpheus Descending, are clearly linked to the plotline, so it is not as if the end result is a disjointed work.

It does, admittedly, drag a little towards the end, but all things considered, it’s a rather splendid effort from everyone involved in this visceral portrayal of contemporary working-class lives.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

On a boozy Bank Holiday in the garden of a Cornish pub, a bunch of colourful misfits and eccentrics learn about life, love, betrayal, and an ancient legend. Among the tall-tales, surprises and revelations, Joey, Matt and Debbie embark on a collision course that will change their lives forever.

Joey – David Shortland
Debbie – Zoe Arden
Hally – Danielle Thompson
Pauline – Liz Wiliams
Brendan – Andy Hewitt
Alan – Nigel Cole
Burling – Harry Medawar
Matt – Scott Tilley
Barbara – Roberta Cole

Lights – Malcolm MacLenan
Sound – John Pyle
Construction – Mart Stonelake
Producer – Liz Williams
Designer & Director – John Buckingham

Tue 1st October 2019 – Sat 5th October 2019


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