Nightmares in Norfolk? Bad dreams in Helmsley

North Country Theatre has been in business, taking theatre to remote locations in village halls, small theatres, arts centres, churches, auction marts, castles, railway waiting rooms, hotels, and gardens, since 1996. I found them a few years later, on their annual visit to the Helmsley Arts Centre, and have since been a regular supporter. Over the years, they have made me laugh (The 39 Steps) and cry (Month in the Country), given us the spooky (Lighthouse on Shivering Sands) and the homely (Home on the Range) along with many an adaptation of the classics (Prisoner of Zenda being my favourite). Their trademark is a small, infinitely adaptable, cleverly constructed set, which they manipulate with speed and dexterity to meet a great variety of situations. And a dog puppet, called Shep, though he alas has gone into retirement in recent years.

So it was in anticipation of my annual dose of North Country pleasure that I set off to the Helmsley Arts Centre last week. Only to be sadly disappointed.

The evening was billed as “Nightmares in Norfolk” and consisted of two one act plays, adapted from well known stories: “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens, and “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You” by M.R. James. Both adaptations were written in house, “Oh Whistle” by the NCT’s Director Nobby Dimon, who was responsible for the original adaptation of “The 39 Steps” still showing in the West End. I was looking forward to being scared witless, whereas I was, sadly, bored witless.

Both plays had a cast of just two, a sign of the these times of financial stringency, I suppose. One was Nobby himself, and the other was NCT regular Mark Cronfield.

The Signalman” showed signs of the old slickness with the scenery, and creation of a spooky atmosphere, but sadly the plot was just plain dull, wordy and predictable.

But it was with “Oh Whistle” that things began to go badly wrong. This was a much more interesting and light-hearted piece, with the occasional laugh and the odd scare, but it was spoiled – dare I say it of North Country Theatre? – by the set. A bed. OK, no problem with that, and in true NCT style, the bed became a chair, a table, a railway carriage, a hill… but it was all far too elaborate, the changes took far too long, and interrupted the action. Sorry to say we were rather relieved when it was over and no-one was injured.

Last but not least, the soundtrack was having a hissy fit all evening, but that may have been down to the Arts Centre equipment rather than the quality of the original. It didn’t, however, do anything to improve our overall enjoyment.

The performance at Helsmley was only the third night of a run lasting until December 2, so things will no doubt improve. I hope so, because I don’t want to see this wonderful little company losing its way.

If I haven’t put you off, you can catch Nightmares at a number of local venues including Husthwaite Village Hall (October 17), Sutton on the Forest Village Hall (October 27), and the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (November 21). Visit the NCT website for other locations and booking details.

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