Sylvia Sceptre: Phantasmagorical Review
Written by Rachel Knightley
Performed at The Old Red Lion Theatre perfomed as part of The London Horror Festival 2018
As magician and as mistress of ceremonies, Sylvia Sceptre is irresistible. Billed as “merrily macabre”, she is girlish yet knowing, a spirit called out of time who relishes the prospect of audience disbelief and keeps us laughing in the dark with beautifully deployed stage illusion and the summoning of invisible spirits, cleverly handled with pace and humour, growing ever more cheerily chilling as the night goes on.
Thought-reading, the staple of the Victorian “Golden Age of Spiritualism”, is the central element of Sylvia Sceptre’s tale of family, childhood, madness, death and magic. Her spell is woven with subtle, excellently manoeuvred illusions, from telepathy with the audience to telekinesis, with spirits ringing chimes and bells. The use of musical soundtrack and the storytelling of childhood encounters with death that frames the magic tricks create a visual performance that is as delightfully baffling as it is deliciously fun.
Thoughtful references to the very real horrors of being an intelligent, emotionally and sexually aware Victorian woman – i.e. “an hysteric” – support the narrative without overshadowing it. They also gently allude to one of horror’s most important lessons: that any memento mori – and there are many in this show – is a reminder not only of death but of life, presence and opportunity. Phantasmagorical works very much in that spirit: a life-affirming show and a secure choice for stand-up comedy or fantasy enthusiasts as much as it is a delight for those of us who already relish life’s darker stories.
Sylvia Sceptre’s charisma as a performer is matched by her talent as an illusionist. The mood she creates in the space is appropriately ghostly and tense, and is absolutely that of an audience rooting for her. The only frustration when an audience is lucky enough to be in the hands of so strong a character and so talented a performer is that just a little too much time is spent on reminders of our world not to dilute our experience of her own. Thought-reading must, of course, be audience-centred, but a little more controlled a build-up in the opening monologue would have made for a sturdier fourth wall. As it was, our sense of world-building didn’t quite recover from a wobbly way in when we are welcomed into the world of Miss Sylvia Sceptre by a monologue that sets the story eloquently, asking if we are there, and if she or we are the spirits summoned out of time. It is elegantly written but delivered in a rush, as though that part needed to be got through rather than relished. As an opening and closing ritual to a séance, it lost the sense of importance and power it needed and destabilized rather than framed our sense of being in her world and reality.
The material of this show is excellent and the performance of it is intelligent, dark and delightful. The show lacks nothing but confidence in its opening for a greater sense of immersion. We truly wanted one, and for the best of reasons: we were charmed and convinced by her, and only wanted to be more fully enveloped in her world.