Illustration by Paul Lowe
Two Ghost Stories by M.R. James
Reviewed by Brian J. Showers, © May 2008
OH, WHISTLE IS ACTOR Robert Lloyd Parry's sequel to his acclaimed one-man play A Pleasing Terror. My unreserved praise and support for A Pleasing Terror may render me an unreliable critic, but I dare suggest that perhaps my expectations for Oh, Whistle may have been even higher than most people's. No one would have been more disappointed had Oh, Whistle been lacklustre. I can assure you that it is not. Please allow me your confidence as I explain.
To date I have seen Oh, Whistle no less than four times, each time in a different venue and with a different audience. The first time I saw this play was at Hemingford Grey Manor towards the beginning of the tour. I cannot think of a better venue than this splendid and slightly rustic Norman dwelling, the longest continually inhabited house in England, and setting for James Gang author Lucy Boston's Green Knowe novels for children. Alas, by the time I arrived, the gardens were shrouded in blackness and I could not see its chessmen topiaries.
The audience was small, not more than twenty, and we all crowded into the intimate Norman sitting room, complete with oversized fireplace, which was, alas, not in use that cold, December night. In one corner stood a 1929 EMG gramophone with an exceedingly large bell. Our host explained that it was used to entertain convalescing soldiers during WWII. On the night of the show the gramophone was used to play background music before Lloyd Parry took the stage, and it played beautifully. The candles were lit and the lights were dimmed.
The stage set-up is mostly the same as in A Pleasing Terror: the familiar leather armchair atop a thread-bare rug; the side table with its assorted bits and bobs, and books strewn about the floor. The astute will notice subtle additions that echo the current tales, such as a smooth piece of ash, which has taken on the appearance of a man, possibly driftwood haphazardly plucked from a desolate beach; and a sheaf of papers half-deposited into a wooden box at the foot of the great leather chair, perhaps the personal papers of Mr. Crome among them.
I admit that the evening's first story, "The Ash Tree", has never ranked as one of my favourites in the James canon. But on that night, as I sat in Hemingford Grey's 900-year old sitting room, the opening paragraph resounded with unique truth: "Perhaps most of all I like fancying what life in such a house was when it was first built," muses James. Indeed! My mood was right and I enjoyed the story as I never had before; surely the way it was originally intended to be enjoyed.
Lloyd Parry, in the spit and image guise of M.R. James wakes from a light nap, produces a marble-covered notebook from his coat pocket and proceeds to relate the chronicles of the ill-fated Fell family, late of Castingham Hall, and a certain Mrs. Mothersole, who has a penchant for darting across lawns by moonlight in shapes not her own. The whole is a period piece, spanning three generations and two centuries. My primary concern was that events of these generations and centuries would blend together. However the storytelling was nicely paced and Lloyd Parry kept each strand recognisable until the gruesome conclusion.
Just as the tales in A Pleasing Terror roundly complemented each other ("Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" and "The Mezzotint"), so too do Oh, Whistle's selections. "Canon Alberic" and "The Ash Tree" are both stories of a more antiquarian bent and concerned with the dredging up of best-forgotten histories. And like "The Mezzotint", the evening's second tale, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" brings us into the social world of the academic bachelor whose only hubris is his natural curiosity and perhaps the denial of human solace.
The second and third times I saw Oh, Whistle were on two consecutive nights in the remote west of Ireland, the sort of places where the Atlantic Ocean beats upon the coast and the chill March wind howls real ghosts. "Oh, Whistle" starts with a recording of a woman singing Robert Burns's eponymous poem set to a disarmingly light-hearted parlour tune. Lloyd Parry enters the stage with a tray and a bowl of soup, perhaps a midnight snack. A dash of salt. As he slurps, he begins the tale. Lloyd Parry is often at his best when portraying two sides of dialogue. In "The Ash Tree" he takes on the personalities of both matronly housekeeper Mrs. Chiddock and the stern squire Sir Richard, one playing off the other as the former attempts to persuade the latter from bedding down in that particular unaired chamber.
Lloyd Parry's extraordinary aptitude for self-conversation achieves perfection during the opening dinner scene of "Oh, Whistle". In an inspired piece of staging, James's midnight snack becomes "dinner" for the academic bachelors as they discuss Professor Parkins's forthcoming holiday. With each turn of the head or mouthful of soup, Lloyd Parry takes on the nuances of each of the four characters in turn. What might have become a confusing jumble is delivered eloquently, uncovering the true humour found in James's dialogue. A top piece of comedic acting! Lloyd Parry also delivers the booming voice of Colonel Wilson with military aplomb: "I expect it was some person trying to give you a start. If you see it again, why, you just throw a stone at it, like a brave little English boy."
And of course the evening would not be complete without that sense of a pleasing terror, which mounts steadily in both stories. There is terrific tension when Parkins first blows the whistle. Lloyd Parry acts this out on stage, bringing a pipe stem to his lips. We expect a blast, or perhaps a thin wail, but instead we hear first silence and then the delicate rush of air, reminiscent of the crashing surf, as he blows through the mouthpiece. It was only after this moment that I noticed I was holding my own breath and let the air escape from my lungs. In Oh, Whistle's climax, Lloyd Parry uses similar innovation when his pocket handkerchief becomes the ill-defined "fluttering draperies" of Parkinsís dream, and the horrid face of "crumpled linen" at the story's climax.
Reggie Oliver writes in his programme notes that "Oh, Whistle" is arguably James's masterpiece. Though we will all have our favourites, Lloyd Parry's performance of this classic story only illustrates its intrinsic power to chill. The range of moods invoked are varied starting with the light-hearted, impersonal social gathering and jokes about golf, to scenes of great frantic terror as Parkins stumbles over the groynes, to a final and intense sadness at the story's end: the huddled and forever broken form of the poor professor.
I should mention that the fourth time I saw this show was in a small community theatre in Tinahely, Co. Wicklow, about two hours outside of Dublin. On that night I had with me my parents who are both unfamiliar with James's work. Both of them found the evening greatly entertaining. As for me, even though it was my fourth time seeing the play, I continue to find more to admire with each viewing. Any chance to see Robert Lloyd Parry perform Oh, Whistle . . . is an opportunity that any fan the supernatural tale will want to grab by the throat!
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