Review: THE REVIVAL at Dolphin Theatre

A witty tale of a haunted play with some ghostly magic

By: Jun. 07, 2021

Review: THE REVIVAL at Dolphin Theatre

"Theatre would be great," I often say, "if it weren't for all the drama." About two years ago, I was involved in a production of a little ghost story called The Spirit of Annie Ross, directed by Jan Saussey, that seemed to have more than its share of drama. There were whispers that the show itself was haunted when two of the lead actors became injured during rehearsals and had to be replaced. So when I read the synopsis for The Revival, a play about a theatre company rehearsing a ghost story that was rumored to be haunted, I thought it quite fitting that the Dolphin Theatre had chosen Jan Saussey to direct.

The Revival opens on a scene familiar to anyone who has ever rehearsed a play. Director Michael Prentice (John Palmer) tries desperately to pull his show together when more drama exists off-stage than on. Tensions run high between the director, actors, and stage crew, mostly centered around the questionable casting of the less-than-talented Sophie Essenheimer (Hannah Rice), and a number of strange happenings around the theatre intensify the bickering. Eventually, grizzled historian Giles Heath (Paul Norrell) bursts in and warns them that by continuing the scene, they risk resurrecting a vengeful spirit bent on dragging one-or more of them-into Hell.

There is a shortage of good ghost stories in the theatre, as the magic required to pull off a truly terrifying haunting tends to scare off a lot of writers and directors. Fortunately, James Cadwood's script is fearless, and goes a long way toward making the show successful. His characters speak with wit, making the interpersonal conflict of a fictional rehearsal considerably more fun to experience than its real-life counterpart. However, he also puts care into making Lucian O'Keefe, the playwright-within-a-play, sound like a distinct author. The segments of O'Keefe's Scared to Death are a bit dryer, more dramatically crafted, almost to a fault as I clearly preferred Cadwood's writing and sometimes wished O'Keefe would hand the keys back to Cadwood a bit sooner. However; the more somber tone of Scared to Death went a long way toward making the show feel like a legitimate haunting rather than a silly effect within an already silly play.

But a script can't tell a story by itself; good horror requires stimulation of as many senses as possible. As usual at the Dolphin, the set was beautifully dressed as a mostly finished Victorian home, and lighting effects also play a strong role in creating the right mood. However, sound designer Ray Gabites didn't neglect the importance of ambient noises, inexplicable sounds, and even abstract music in putting an audience on edge. While the script calls for the actors to draw attention to some of this, occasionally sounds would play in the background, sometimes even barely audible, to make the audience question their own senses without prompting from the cast. If I had any criticism of the show, it would be that the visual effects were sometimes not quite as subtle as the audio, leaving the audience with too much time to get a good look at the ghost early on, negating the startling effect of suddenly seeing something unexpected.

Honorable mention goes to two actors in particular. First, Hannah Rice's performance as Sophie is deceptively simple. Playing a bad actor is not the easy task you might think. It requires an actor not only to know how to play the role right, but to resist the urge to do so and instead to break instinct and exaggerate all the mannerisms that completely break a character. Rice did this flawlessly, even nailing the perception of an American struggling to do a British accents. Paul Norrell's performance as Professor Giles Heath commanded all my attention the moment he appeared, booming with a voice that seems destined to play roles in the Van Helsing vein. Giles belongs to a long tradition of ghost/monster hunters who arrive on the scene to deliver exposition so unearthly that the main characters find themselves more creeped out-temporarily at least-by the good guy than the evil he's trying to fight. Norrell leans into the melodrama of this role, and my only criticism is that Cadwell gave him such a small role in the story.

The Revival is a fun, witty ghost story with an engaging plot, and it has a special appeal to anyone who spends their time in theatres or with actors. While the story doesn't focus too heavily on the effects, the atmosphere of a haunted theatre is pulled off well enough that it stands out as something unique. The show can be seen at the Dolphin Theatre through the nineteenth of June.

Photo Credit: Dolphin Theatre


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