Substance and Shadow Theatre are an Exeter-based theatre company with a propensity for horror and history, shown in their most recent production, Walking with God. An immersive and creepy original play, the show demonstrates the company’s inventive and unique nature, which perfectly suits the darker side of Exeter’s past.
Performed in St Nicholas Priory, the eerie ex-monastery gave a ghostly edge to their dark piece on Jack the Ripper, and with a large portion of the action set in Exeter Digby Mental Asylum, Substance and Shadow convincingly brought the London murders to its Devon audience. Even upon entering the building through Exeter’s darker alleyways, it felt as though we were transported to the labyrinth of 19th Century Whitechapel. Their choice of venue and aptly decorated, candle-lit scene perfectly combined with the immersive nature of their theatre, culminating in a time-travel experience to Victorian London/Exeter.
The play was supported by a variety of fascinating and unique characters. The action was most brought together through protagonist Stephen Adams (Richard Pulman) who’s delightful and charismatic nature gradually became eerie. His soliloquies allowed for a strong connection between the audience and the characters, and his own character demonstrated best the excellence of the playwrights – Midge and Rosie Mullin. With an unexpected character arc, his charming yet deceptive nature kept the audience in suspense, hanging on his every word. Clearly a talented singer too, Pulman’s short operatic interludes enhanced the play’s spooky feel; my only critique would be that, as a result, his lip-sync moment felt a little ridiculous especially for an actor who could have simply sung.
A favourite character of mine was Mary Jane Kelly, played by Jola Pawlikowska. With her charming London accent and flirtatious nature, she provided light-heartedness which starkly contrasted the show’s darker moments. Further, her kindness and honesty, wit and likeability, displayed brilliant nuances in her character that evoke the audience’s sympathy for the Ripper’s victims. Her final speech was, in my opinion, the play’s best moment: her vulnerability and anxiety, gripping flowers in her hand while trying to remain strong and optimistic, gave her an Ophelia-like innocence, which only made her death more powerfully tragic.
Additionally, I enjoyed Inspector Donald Swanson – performed by co-writer Midge – who I felt kept the show’s action at an exciting pace, with his invigorating and expressive nature. Though his Cockney character often bordered on period-drama cliché, his intensity superbly evoked the metropolitan aspects of Victorian London, adding a stark contrast to the dingey asylum of rural Exeter.
Al Wadlan as the central suspect John Sanders, must be also commended for his brilliant portrayal of the Victorian madman. Certainly a talented actor, Wadlan did justice to what I imagine is an exhausting and difficult role to play, as his disturbing and heart-breaking character kept the audience oscillating in their feelings towards him. While intense and convincing, I would suggest the character should demonstrate a greater variety of symptoms of madness, and to reduce his distress in earlier scenes in order for the audience to watch them intensify or degenerate.
My final critique of the production would be that a few characters could have done with a little more nuance and exciting direction, though perhaps they were not on stage long enough to develop. The burlesque sleep-sequence could have been profoundly powerful, though its unexplained occurrence and the actress’ maniac laugh made it border on the comical rather than horrifying. Some interactions too felt a little stilted or static, as if the actor was waiting on a cue rather than genuinely reacting, which was disappointing in a cast clearly so talented and full of promise.
However, any minor issues were hard to notice through the overall brilliant ambience and visuals of the performance. Not only was the costume well-crafted and period-fitting, but the show featured a lot of intricate details which added real professionalism. Particularly the feature of the play’s logo – on the Inspector’s badge and Adam’s gloves, for instance – demonstrated a key eye for detail that added to the delight of this production’s design. The show was also accompanied by an impressive original score and brilliantly appropriate lighting, by Samantha Bearder and Alex White respectively. These additional touches truly enhanced the eerie atmosphere of the performance, and the projections especially added a uniquely ghostly feel.
Ultimately, Walking with God is a terrific and terrifying original play, brilliantly written and thrillingly performed, certain to please any theatregoer interested in Exeter’s darker past. The historic setting of St Nicholas’ Priory and creepy technological touches brought together this well-executed play (pun intended) – I’m excited to see what Substance and Shadow do in the future!
Photo Credits: Matt Austin