By Joe O’Byrne
Buxton Opera House

Why do we like being scared? It’s because we get joy and a thrill out of being afraid, according to Joe O’Byrne, a fan of ghost stories and Hammer Horror who is the writer and director of The Haunting of Blaine Manor.

He grew up watching the likes of Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. He wanted to come up with a period piece that would fit the world of M R James or Edgar Allen Poe – masters of mystery and the macabre.

The result was The Haunting of Blaine Manor which premièred in 2016 and played fringe venues before progressing to mainstream theatres.

There’s no doubt that ghost stories are popular as they’ve always been, as evidenced by the large audience made up of all ages at Buxton Opera House.

Set in 1953, the play involves American paranormal events investigator Doctor Roy Earle being invited to a séance in what’s supposed to be the most haunted building in England. On his way to Blaine Manor he swerves to avoid a horse and escapes with his life after his car ends up in a lake.

Ed Barry (Vincent de Lambré), Jimmy Allen (Adolphus Scarabus) and Peter Slater (Doctor Roy Earle). Top: Andrew Yates (Cairo), Peter Slater (Doctor Roy Earle) and Jo Haydock (Vivian Rutledge) [images: Darren McGinn]

To his surprise he’s informed that the local stables have been empty for 100 years and folklore states that anyone who sees a horseman will be dead by dawn.

His arrival at the manor awakens something horrific. Earle proclaims there are no such things as ghosts – but will he be proved wrong?

The Haunting of Blaine Manor takes time to warm up as the characters are introduced and the building’s history is unveiled.

It comes to life after half an hour with the introduction of Adolphus Scarabus, the world-renowned psychic and parapsychologist. Jimmy Allen, with wayward hair giving him the look of a mad professor, is a spirited foil for Earle, diligently portrayed by Peter Slater who shines as the strong-willed, flirtatious sceptic with a secret he doesn’t want revealed.

Writer and director Joe O’Byrne as Grady

The tension begins to increase as a presence in the house becomes stronger and Earle is determined to stay the night even though the custodian of the manor, Vincent de Lambré – a solid performance by Ed Barry – advises all the guests at the cancelled séance to go to an inn.

All the characters are pitched cleverly so that they have different characteristics. Jo Haydock is unscrupulous reporter Vivian Rutledge who uses her wiles to try to uncover a scoop about the manor while Andrew Yates, with dark, sunken eyes, is the cunning, camp clairvoyant Cairo.

O’Byrne makes an appearance as Grady, the loyal butler with 37 years’ service at Blaine Manor. The mystery is ramped up when it’s revealed Earle isn’t all he appears to be.

So does The Haunting of Blaine Manor have a place among theatre’s scariest pieces? As the director, O’Byrne resists the temptation to batter the audience with endless flashing lights and deafening sound effects. What he does use is very effective. But there’s little doubt the play could do with more tension in some places.

On the other hand, it’s well worth sticking with The Haunting of Blaine Manor which has an unexpected ending. It probably won’t give you nightmares – but it should leave you in good spirits.

* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website


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