It’s the right time of year for creepy things – Hallowe’en and all that. Wilkie Collins was good at making Victorian, and later, flesh creep and his story of The Dead Hand is no exception. It’s been dramatised by David Gilbrook and given a small-scale touring production by Rumpus Theatre Company.
Collins was a dramatist as well as a novelist, so in theory this adaptation should have made a seamless transition. In practice, the best moments come when the people on stage are simply recounting incidents to each other, rather than acting them out. Designer John Goodrum has draped the stage with blood-red hangings which reveal four-poster beds as appropriate. There are a great number of very short scenes and rather too much physical set-changes.
Three actors take all the parts, with the two principal roles – that of wealthy young Arthur Holliday and the stranger whose room he shares in an 1870 Doncaster crammed to bursting for the St Leger race – played by David Martin. He brings out the contrast in these men, one secure in his social status and the other grasping at any means to achieve something comparable. Collins, who maintained an extremely complicated private lifestyle, does tend to place emphasis on illegitimacy.
Amanda Howard is Mary, the girl wooed by both men, as well as a couple of less-than-welcoming landladies. Nicholas Gilbrook makes much of the landlord of the Two Robins (not a hostelry to recommend) and the doctor who is a Holliday family friend. There are chills in plenty and some very good special effects, but I’m not sure that the audience reaction of laughter from time to time is as nervous as it should be.