At The Altar
24/01/2024 - 27/01/2024
Writer/Set Design/Costume Design: Sam Hearps
Director: Rosie Glover
Beneath the Bed Productions
Wedding preparations are stressful. That’s to be expected. But when Laurel gets a midnight plea for help from her sister Daphne, she makes the cross country trip at the drop of a hat. What greets her are gardens that seemingly stretch forever and the news that Daphne is missing. With only days until the wedding, Laurel takes it upon herself to find her dear little sister.
But something lurks in the manor’s walls, eyes watch unseen and ghosts of the past aren’t willing to stay buried. Will Laurel be reunited with her little sister or will the Barker Estate swallow her whole?
BATS Theatre, ‘The Stage’
24-27th January 2024
Book online at https://bats.co.nz/whats-on/at-the-altar/
Production Manager: Brie Keatley
Stage Manager: Shem Dixon
Lighting Designer/Operator: Teddy O'Neill
Sound Designer/Operator: Josh Lees
Makeup SFX: Maia Young
Marketer/Publicist: Ava Stuart
Actor – Laurel: Lani Swann
Actor – Marcus: Sean Farrell
Actor – Amelia: Alanah Munn
Actor – Daphne: Sam Wahlers
Actor – Rose: Pan Clark
Outstanding onstage horror a well co-ordinated creative success
Review by Tim Stevenson 25th Jan 2024
To make At The Altar, Beneath The Bed Productions started with an innovative theatrical idea. It built an original play around the idea, turned the play into a live stage production, and is now presenting the results as a new work at the 2024 Six Degrees Festival. This much creative scope and willingness to experiment promises for an interesting night at the theatre, which the production certainly delivers.
As if being experimental and interesting isn’t enough, At The Altar is also a well-crafted, ingenious, well-organised, skilfully presented piece of theatre. The icing on the cake is that it is highly entertaining. This is a production that takes its theatre genre of choice – horror – and applies itself tirelessly to making it work. Every trick in the book is deployed to ensure that even the most blasé audience member is rattled out of their complacency and starts jumping at shadows.
If we know what to look out for, we can get a sense of where At The Altar is coming from before the curtain goes up. Check out the empty set: as sets go, it’s pretty busy – a conventional living room layout, with couches and tables and chairs, and, not so conventionally, a riot of flowers and plants. Not just neatly confined in their vases and jardinieres and picture frames, but creeping down the walls and across the floor. This is a set that looks as if it has something to say for itself, and yes, that will turn out to be the case.
The storyline won’t hold many surprises for anyone who’s come across horror movies before, particularly those from the Hammer Horror stable. There’s a wedding coming up. The setting is a grand old country house with lots of gardens, an image of genteel peace and stability. However, all this tranquillity is about to be disrupted. The bride is missing. Her sister Laurel (Lani Swann) arrives to find out what’s happened to her. Helping her – or are they? – with her enquiries are the bridegroom, Marcus Barker, and his sister Amelia, played respectively by Sean Farrell and Alannah Munn.
For the rest of the story, Laurel will continue to her investigations; gradually uncover the truth about the Barker mansion and the fate of her sister Daphne (Sam Wahlers); and become more than just an anxious outsider. Meanwhile, Marcus and Amelia will pursue their own questionable aims, until all three are joined together in a sinister arabesque of – but I’ll stop here, because half the fun of horror lies in its mystery and suspense.
Controlling mystery, suspense and the shocking reveal is where At The Altar really excels. Writer Sam Hearps and anyone in the production who helped her out have put a lot of thought into how horror can reach out and shake up its audience. The play draws on a large and varied repertoire of devices – everything from the subtle sidelong glance, to your full-on screaming bloodstained apparition – and uses a set that’s bursting with spooky surprises. These include my personal favourite: the wan, zombielike figure staring forlornly yet menacingly through the window.
To deliver these delights effectively, the production needs a cast and crew who excel at design and delivery. It’s a pleasure to report that it has both.
As Laurel, Swann has the most to do on stage, and also has to carry off a tricky and important change in her character (no details, to avoid spoilers). Her portrayal of Laurel is confident and nuanced, and delivers a character who is sympathetic and believable throughout.
Sean Farrell as the plausible, charming, dodgy Marcus gives a relaxed and persuasive performance. I particularly enjoy his shifts between reassurance mode and various degrees of villainy.
Alannah Munn as Amelia conveys her character’s role as the sinister, reserved keeper of the mansion’s mysteries with conviction.
Sam Wahlers as Daphne is enjoyably and appropriately over-the-top in her part. Pan Clark as Rose doesn’t have many lines, but her portrayal involves some highly effective physical theatre.
Not only the set, but lighting, sound and costume as well, all have important, active roles in delivering suspense and shock to At The Altar’s audience. The play is fast-paced and loves its twists and turns, so it’s immensely to the credit of the design and technical crew that everything is delivered on time and looks and sounds so great.
So take a bow all for yourselves, Stage Manager Shemaia Dixon, Lighting Designer/Operator Teddy O’Neill, Sound Designer Josh Lees, Sound Operator Ava Stuart, SFX Makeup by the cast, and Set Designer/Costume Designer Sam Hearps.
Your reviewer is in awe of Director Rosie Glover for bringing this all together and for their contribution to the design of a well co-ordinated creative success.
At The Altar is in the midst of its development season. When the time comes for a post-season review, will they consider tightening up the plot and timeline a tad? Just something they might like to think about.
At The Altar will presumably be part of someone’s portfolio to be graded by the learned doctors who run the MFA in Creative Practice course. For my part, I’m happy to offer Beneath The Bed Productions my congratulations for delivering the all-round most outstanding piece of onstage horror I‘ve ever come across.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer