The Fifth Guest is a horror themed dark comedy, written by Carol Maginn and directed by Zara Marie Brown. Taking place on Halloween night, four strangers arrive at an abandoned, and apparently haunted, house on a small, rocky island somewhere between Great Britain and Ireland. They have been invited to take part in a murder mystery dinner, but soon after arriving, one by one, in the dusty, cobwebbed filled dining room, with gaudy red chairs and cheap hatstand, it quickly becomes clear that everything might not be as it seems, and worst of all, dinner may never be served.
Soon after the play opens, we meet the house’s resident ghost, the Lost Girl (Emma Hill) who wears a bedraggled wedding dress and speaks mostly in Macbeth quotes creating a brilliant pastiche of Dickens and Shakespeare, who both played with the realms of the supernatural to progress their plots when required. Our dishevelled Miss Havisham first appears from the gods, looking down at our mish-mash of party guests issuing a series of barely veiled threats. This creates a nice sense of peril but several people watching did comment that they couldn’t hear what she was saying, which is unfortunate. Some consideration as to how this could both keep the level of menace intended and increase the audibility would be worthwhile, either by repositioning Hill to face slightly more towards the audience or increasing the volume, though the latter may lessen the chilling nature of the lines.
Our first party guest is podcaster, YouTuber and Instagrammer extraordinaire, Delilah (Rachel Howard) who does a brilliant job of portraying the “rich girl with nothing better to do but influence” stereotype. She is delighted with the aesthetic of Tranley Manor and gleefully tells her followers that the housekeeper, Mrs Grimsby (Geraldine Moloney Judge) is an “actual real-life Irish person”. Less enthused with the experience is City banker, Lucas (James Dorman) who is assessing the experience for investment opportunities. Disgusted from the off with the voluminous cobwebs and Mrs Grimsby’s scatty and haphazard nature, he sees little to recommend the creepy manor to his clients.
He is equally appalled by the arrival of Pastor Jake (Rory Woodhouse) a sanctimonious clergyman with his own church celebrating spiritual joy, and DJ Travis (Jordan Barkley), but not as appalled as Delilah when she discovers that the old manor has no wi-fi. Howard’s reaction to the need to stream being unmet is very funny and a brilliant commentary on today’s world of social media and influencers pushing their way into every aspect of our lives. The lack of wi-fi, and even phone signal, create a nice classic ghost story feel by removing those means of communication that we rely on so much today and dropping the characters into an old house, with a ghost, and no means of contacting the outside world.
Moloney Judge’s horrifically cheerful delivery of the ghost story which haunts the Manor would, as Delilah laments, make a fantastic addition to her vlog collection. But, as a food blogger, she would not get much material from the dreadful appetisers Mrs Grimsby soon serves up. But the sherry is good, and so our guests proceed to get drunk while waiting for a dinner that is definitely not forthcoming.
The idea that this is all of murder mystery evening creates a nice level of distrust between the characters as they of course assume that at least two of them must be actors, but as the evening progresses and no one dies, it appears that the murder mystery was merely a ruse to get them onto the island and into the Manor. So why are they there? What do these four, very different, strangers have in common? The play works its way through a series of dark jokes, accusations and mysteries, each of which point one way, towards the Lost Girl.
The lack of food and free-flowing alcohol allows paranoia and maudlin to increase rapidly. Delilah and Travis’ drunkenness are particularly key to driving the plot forward as her fear increases and he begins to see faces in mirrors which nobody else notices. Barkley’s terrified reactions to his ghostly experiences are both heart-stopping and very funny. The cast all use rapid speech and long pauses to increase the feeling of dread in the dining room and Moloney Judge’s indestructible chipper performance is a lovely contrast to the frightened guests’ horrified reactions to an unexplainable, and seemingly hopeless, situation.
The Fifth Guest is a fantastic piece of Halloween theatre, which takes elements of the Victorian ghost story and stereotypes of today’s society, playing with them to create a genuine sense of terror along with some very clever humour. There are some very shrewd twists and turns in the piece which mean nothing turns out as you expect it to. Remember to be careful when you look in the mirror this Halloween. You never know who is looking back.
The Fifth Guest is being performed again at the Hope Street Theatre on 22nd October 2022. Tickets are sold out.
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 21st October 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★