Jafar Iqbal reviews Mysterious Maud’s Chambers of Fantastical Truth by Caroline Sabin, an immersive haunted house experience at Insole Court.
You only need to walk around the grounds of Insole Court on a dark Autumn night to realise that it’s the perfect location for a haunted house show. For Halloween, the large stately home in Llandaff doubles up as the home of the titular Maud, a scientist driven mad when she can no longer trust her own senses and the reality (or lack thereof) around her. Over the course of its ninety-minute running time, Mysterious Maud’s Chambers of Fantastical Truth introduces us to an ensemble of spooky personalities, some more familiar than others. While all with their own individual story to tell, they all contribute to the story of Maud’s insanity.
The characters inhabiting this piece by Caroline Sabin are all a delight to watch. Rowan Talbot steals the show as perennial horror sidekick Igor, lamenting the sorry state his master is in. Igor is typically sinister, but Talbot plays it all with a campness that horror fans would recognise from the films of Bela Lugosi. A similar homage is paid by Jon Gower to Boris Karloff in his portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster. Thanks to Maud, the Monster has both speech and intelligence, something the audience witness via a beautifully lyrical monologue.
What’s missing from Gower’s portrayal, and missing from Mysterious Maud… overall, is genuine scares. It’s spooky, no doubt, and the house is chilling enough as it is. But other than in the opening sequence, where the characters literally emerge from the shadows, those expecting a series of frights will have been disappointed. That the audience are allowed to move around the house freely certainly adds a level of suspense, but the show never really takes advantage of it.
Instead of frightening set pieces, Sabin uses this immersive haunted house format to introduce dance to an audience that may not otherwise consider it. If Talbot represents the campness of early Hollywood horror, then Kimberly Noble and Hugh Stanier represent European horror from the seventies. Playing the Groundskeeper and her dog respectively, Noble and Stanier give beautifully choreographed dance pieces, all accompanied by haunting live music. Their story is perhaps the most emotionally engaging, all told through the physicality of their performances and all without uttering a word. The live music is a great addition as, in terms of design, the piece does feel flat at times. Sabin is restricted by the limitations of Insole Court, and the lack of ambient lighting takes away from certain sequences. The lighting does work in the smaller spaces of the house – the Monster’s monologue springs to mind – but more would have enhanced the piece.
What Sabin really excels at in Mysterious Maud is controlling the audience. While allowed to go where they want the audience are never too far from a character, who points them in the right direction. The subtle guidance works far better as the audience feel far more in control even when, in fact, they’re not at all. The audience is finally brought into the largest room of the house for the finale, where the story of Maud and Juliet is resolved without too much fuss and the audience are sent away with one last musical number. It’s a very satisfying ending to an enjoyable, albeit tame, piece of immersive theatre.
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Jafar Iqbal is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.