Of all the shows vying for attention at the Fringe this year, many have their pedigree in film and Carnival of Souls which runs at The Cameo cinema is a prime example. Based on the cult 1962 film by Herk Harvey (now in the public domain, so legally watchable online), Leeds-based Sample Theatre, under the direction of Madeleine Hughes, have taken an innovative approach to the source material using video, audio and interpretive dance.
From the moment you enter Screen One late at night; dry ice billowing, carousel incessantly spinning on screen, carnival music invading your ears, balloons and bunting draped around the Art Deco pillars; there’s an immediate and pervading sense of unease. Like funfairs, cinemas shouldn’t have any perturbing connotations but in this context, it certainly does.
Carnival of Souls is the tale of young woman (Hayley Mallinson) who survives a car crash and is haunted by strange visions leading her inexorably towards a mysterious pavilion. The only other recurring character in the play is a lecherous neighbour (Gordon Campbell) who plagues her almost as much as the visions.
Sample Theatre advise they seek to use cinematic conventions to [alter] the audience’s experience of watching a live performance through the use of new technologies¦ to create an experience which enmeshes the audience members into the visual and audio fabric of the performance.
Where the play’s strength lies is in its creation of an unsettling ambience. Through use of sound design by Rob Julian, which we’re assured is malleable and subject to improvisation based on the ebbs and flows of a particular night’s performance, he creates an unsettling sonic soundscape which cranks tension.
When married with visuals projected across the sparse set, which uses a series of screen doors and ladders to create an ingenious space for the actors to work around, the sound and images lift this above many other productions aiming for similar cult appeal. Using interaction with footage and occasional dialogue from the film, as well as self-generated imagery, visual artist James Chantry makes bold use of the storytelling potential of mixing mediums.
The play feels slightly on the short side and at times the structure of varying mediums gives it the feel of a remix, rather than the full story. As such, while you leave feeling you’ve experienced something audacious, you won’t necessarily leave feeling satisfied. Although it certainly works visually and in terms of ambience, it might be that late at night in the cosiest chairs in town isn’t the ideal place for an event which requires quite intense concentration. Keeping up with the rapid-fire scene changes and 360-degree performance does become hard work. The acting is solid and Mallinson definitely holds the attention as the strung-out lead. However, the incongruity of the leads’ accents is occasionally jarring with Campbell’s Scottish accent seeming out of place among the early-60s Americana.
As an exercise in atmosphere building it’s a success, making use of the cinematic surroundings to their full potential. As a feat of storytelling, it may leave you feeling slightly cold. That said, this is a unique opportunity to see something different this Fringe in a space which rarely, if ever, sees cinema break from the screen in quite this way.