“This is the true story of two travelling carnies who develop an obsession with the occult, exposing and explaining the paranormal.”

Lizzie Tollemache and David Ladderman listen to their audience.  It makes sense as performers who’ve worked with circus, cabaret, and variety around the world…  so much of those skills rely on the audience investing fully.  And while Tuesday night’s opening night audience were warm and excited, getting them to invest in that way demands a hell of a lot of energy from the actors.  Tollemache and Ladderman had that energy and more, as they started to spin their haunting (get it?!  oh God, I’m sorry…) tales.  In fact, Ladderman had so much energy with his wild gestures and choppy, almost Shatner-ish delivery, that it felt pretty hammy.  I wondered if I’d be leaving with a bottle of snake oil, or be called upon to yell “Behind you, behind you!!”  Meanwhile, Tollemache was on AV duty, without even a light on her.  Seemed a bit rude.

The premise is that they became interested in ghost stories in South Otago, apparently the most haunted part of New Zealand.  They set the scene well, with a little detail here and there provided with slides and props.  The stage is pretty bare – furniture set out like a little sitting room starts under dust cloths, revealed incrementally as the story progresses from general presentation on ghost stories from the mining era to something more immediate – perhaps one of those presences followed them all the way to Circa?  Perhaps it doesn’t like how its story is being told?

The interesting thing for me was the way Ladderman’s panto flailing had lulled me into expectation of more of the same.  So I was sucked into Tollemache’s rising intensity while he subsided and didn’t even realise the clever swap of focus they’d effected.  They understand how people engage, and they played with us.  This show has been going for a couple of years, presumably evolving as they’ve studied the reactions, and it must be old hat now.  But the audience is always the wild card.  They didn’t assume we were stupid – obviously we all recognised where they were going to take us early.  But I swear every single person in that theatre jumped, more than once, and exactly when we were supposed to.

There was nowhere near enough Actual Story to satisfy me.  It was a little bit here, a little there, then a tempting narrative began that just stopped dead (yep, I’ll see myself out), replaced by lighting and sound and then just…  nothing.  I felt that the commitment the audience had made was unrewarded.  And I felt that the actors were unrewarded, too…  I get what they wanted to do, but they deserved applause for the work they’d put in.  Maybe they were just happy knowing that they made a full theatre shriek and jump like wusses?