by Kevin Mathew
The somber tune of the steady piano caught me by surprise as I walked into the room, the stage already set and occupied by a silent and enigmatic figure, sitting in the gallows and observing the audience enter, as though we were the performance and he the onlooker. The unexpected reversal of roles was already building atmosphere, and the show had not yet begun – although the implication was that it had; as soon as we entered the room we were complicit in something that we had no control over. The silence of the audience was palpable and this exceptional beginning laid the foundation for what I was sure would be a fantastic performance.
Standing trial in court for the murder of his brother, James MacGregor’s role in this one-man show is to convince the jury and the spectators in the public gallery – played by the audience itself – that he is innocent of the crime for which he is accused. Through the gift of spiritualism, he seeks to call on his brother’s spirit in an attempt to prove himself not guilty of the most egregious act of fratricide. The well-crafted monologue consists of highly skillful and persuasive character changes, using minimal yet powerful props combined with light effects and illusion to explore the passion, secrets and rivalry between the two brothers with the hallmarks of great storytelling. Actor Scott Gilmour’s elegant and adept use of the space combines with the live piano score to create an atmosphere which flows smoothly from hauntingly sinister, to deeply sorrowful, to eloquently joyful. The conflicts are rich and the twists, although predictable, are something to look forward to.
It would be remiss of me, however, not to mention some of the flaws in the performance. There is praise to be given to the choice of not using a microphone and opting to vocally project instead, but this unfortunately meant that somber and more serious passages were not expressed effectively. Gilmour was trapped in an almost monotonous tone of anxiety throughout the play with only a handful of variations which, whilst compelling at first, soon struggled to butter the bread. In addition, the rising crescendo of the piano drowned out the climax of some scenes – a drawback not aided by the fast-moving protagonist, who sometimes had his back to the audience, breaking the spell cast by the gothic and tense set.
In addition, I found the performance longer than it needed to be. The prolonged speeches at court, particularly towards the end, failed to communicate any more than what had already been expressed, and the beautifully constructed atmosphere was sometimes lost in the drawn out monologues.
Overall, the story was well-crafted with sufficient twists and turns, which effectively led the audience to the answers and kept us wondering whether James was a crazy murderer or if he actually was a gifted medium. However, the superficial aspects of several scenes took away from the story, turning it into one that was sometimes hard to follow and keep up with. For a night of horror, illusion and magic, Velvet Evening Séance is an enjoyable watch. It is all in all directed incredibly well and enables a deep exploration of James MacGregors’ sorrows. The use of props, although minimal, was beautifully executed and, with just a few minor adjustments to the story and set, this could very easily be one of theatre’s great solos.