The Dark Carnival: Unplugged

Eastgate Theatre, Peebles

Neil Cooper

Four stars

It’s very much a case of better the devil you know in the Vanishing Point company’s stripped-down touring version of their hit piece of theatrical gothic. While there might just be storytelling MC Robert Jack and crooning composer Biff Smith onstage compared to the coffin-load of sixteen actor/musicians who graced the original, the beyond the grave stories and songs remain the same.

As the audience enter the twilight zone for the restless dead as if on a guided tour of what lies beneath the earth, Jack and Smith lead us through a series of chronicles of deaths foretold. Each are laid bare in Nikki Kalkman and Matthew Lenton’s infinitely portable production with the knowing foreboding of master storytellers. Think Edgar Allan Poe hosting Jackanory. Each yarn is illustrated with a series of sepia-tinted photographs that sit astride the coffin of Kenneth MacLeod’s funeral parlour set as they might do in similar memoriam on a living room mantlepiece. From such mementoes, a series of lost souls are immortalised in anecdote and image.

There is bonhomie and gallows humour aplenty at play here in these tales from the crypt. Whisky handed out and spectral singalongs are encouraged, though anyone inadvertently breaking the spell should beware, as they will be singled out and dealt with by way of a withering remark delivered with elegance and charm.

Without the ornate baroque arrangements of his band A New International to accompany him, Smith’s songs are revealed as a form of acoustic subterranean chansons, while the interplay between him and Jack gives the pair the air of a seasoned double act. While the full version of The Dark Carnival is to be cherished in all its grandiloquent glory, this pocket-sized reimagining conjures up a cabaret-styled sprite of a show, which, given the ghost of a chance, suggests it might yet have a long life to come.