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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Entertainment
Arifa Akbar

Phantasmagoria review – scary story forgets the fear factor

Antony Bunsee as Jai in Phantasmagoria at Southwark Playhouse.
‘Seems like a spare part’ … Antony Bunsee as Jai in Phantasmagoria at Southwark Playhouse. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Holed up in a remote house surrounded by forest, with heavy rainfall and no way out, politician Bina (Tania Rodrigues) and student activist Mehrosh (Hussina Raja) are taking part in a frank discussion hosted by Jai (Antony Bunsee). We do not know which country we are in, or what era, but as they limber up for their showdown, the light fails and a growling is heard within the house.

Produced by Kali theatre company, Deepika Arwind’s haunted house story is filled with unsettling ideas about the nature of political debate, from thuggery to the limits placed on freedom of speech. But the metaphor – of sinister forces manifesting as an invisible, stalking threat – stands above and beyond the drama.

Tania Rodrigues and Ulrika Krishnamurti.
‘Too symbolic’ … Tania Rodrigues as Bina (left) and Ulrika Krishnamurti as Scheherazade. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Under the direction of Jo Tyabji, the tension is missing: you do not feel the characters’ fear, or start when they do, and it is static, the script containing lots of discussion untethered to story. Characters meet in the dark and talk to each other or themselves. There are full-bodied exchanges of ideas nonetheless and some intrigue is built, especially through the character of Scheherazade (Ulrika Krishnamurti), Bina’s personal assistant and make-up artist who tries to control the surroundings, even the weather in one comic twist.

It is clear that professional brand management and image-making for politicians like Bina is all. But both she and Mehrosh are flatly drawn, while Jai seems like a spare part. Scherezade, meanwhile, is a curious character, part comic but with a tragic backstory. She represents those who find a voice through social media but, like the others, seems too symbolic.

In a time of increasing journalistic censorship worldwide, and potential curbs to the right to gather and protest closer to home, this is an incredibly timely play. It should feel more chilling than it does.

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