THis supernatural thriller is based on a little-known story by MR James about murder and attempted resurrection in times of plague. Like many of James’s tales, The experiment It ends in a few pages: a wife kills her evil husband but tries to conjure his spirit to discover where he hid all his earthly treasure.
The Philip Franks adaptation turns that lean tale into a richer drama about abuse, revenge, pedophilia, and occult practices without losing any of its tension. James’ 1931 story takes place in an unspecified past in which there is a “disease” believed to refer to the bubonic plague. Here, it is shown to be the Spanish flu of 1918, and a parallel, contemporary plot features a millennial couple with liquidity problems during the Covid shutdown.
Matt and Caitlin (Max Bowden and Alexandra Guelff) become investigators of the past in hopes of finding buried treasure themselves. The story switches between his adventures, which are broadcast to a YouTube channel, and that of the 1918 drama involving a “peedo-sadistic monster” who is said to have believed in the devil, the late Francis Bowles, along with Alice Bowles. (Tamzin Outhwaite), his serum-faced widow, and Joseph (Jack Archer), his abused son.
The action begins today, with the young couple searching for Francis’s grave at night, their faces only illuminated by torchlight, and there is a wobbly quality to the images to give the effect of handheld camera with the one they are filming. themselves. It’s a scene in the style of The Blair Witch Project, and it seems almost a sham in its deliberate hesitation.
Made remotely under lockdown conditions by Original Theater Company, it is the fourth online production of its kind to use remote technology and split-screen filming, and brings together multiple cast members from their previous drama, Birdsong. including Stephen Boxer as Dr. Hall, who oversees the parish cemetery, Poppy Roe as his housekeeper, and Tim Treloar, who plays a deliciously creepy boatman, as well as Archer.
It’s elegantly co-directed by Franks and Alastair Whatley and edited by Tristan Shepherd, but the splitscreen seems more pronounced and jarring than it did earlier this year, perhaps because we’ve watched dramas online using a wider range of techniques, but also because it was it has reminded us of the impact of live theater in the breaks between closings.
Outdoor scenes, such as those in the cemetery, are much more vivid compared to indoor scenes, in which the actors are superimposed on the backdrops of dusty rooms and staircases. It’s even more remarkable then that the atmosphere remains suspenseful and the cast is uniformly strong, with Outhwaite standing out as Francis’ long-suffering wife. She plays Alice with the bitter imperiousness and sadness of a Miss Havisham. While James’s story never inhabits his emotional life, here, his torments become vivid along with his son’s, and we feel his plight.
It is a great achievement to turn such a mild story into an hour-long drama with so many added elements, but because that story is so fine and its ending is so straightforward, the outcome feels disappointing, despite the power of the performances.
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