This elegant and accomplished adaptation tackles three short stories by English author Neil Gaiman; or four short stories, if you count the intriguing monologue they read you as you file in. Each tale is drawn from Gaimain’s collection Fragile Things, but they’re recast to use the titular October In The Chair as a framing device – a simple transformation which works remarkably well. Clustered round a campfire in a suitably autumnal wood, the months of the year take turns to entertain each other with far-fetched yarns; one of them is chosen to preside over proceedings, and this month it’s October in the chair.
In terms of execution, it’s hard fault the New-York-based Old Sound Room. The cast dip in and out of multiple characters – playing both the storytellers, and the protagonists of each other’s stories – yet always maintain a perfect clarity about who’s currently holding the floor. They make some beautiful images out of a collection of suitcases, at one point building them into a thoroughly credible house, and they perform their scene changes with both verve and precision. Look out, too, for an impressive swordfight, which culminates in a gloriously over-done death scene.
But to my mind, this adaptation suffers one huge structural problem. The first story’s built around the artistic travails of a gothic novelist, and therefore offers the performers a licence to over-act – an invitation they accept with gusto. It’s funny while it lasts, and might well have worked as an energetic finale, but as an opener it’s a disaster. It thoroughly overshadows the much subtler second story, which feels distinctly dull as a result.
And that’s a tremendous shame, because the second act contains plenty of moments which ought to be stand-out highlights. During one complex journey across continents, we find cars, trains and even a hot-air balloon conjured from the suitcases before our eyes. Yet it was only towards the end of this tale that I found myself being drawn back in; luckily, that still gave me time to enjoy the finely-wrought and comically horrific conclusion.
The last of the three stories goes a long way towards redeeming earlier faults. Telling of a young girl who finds that she’s someone’s only friend, it’s poignantly delivered and genuinely sinister, with creative use of hand-held lighting to evoke a world on the edge of darkness. It’s a little too easy to see where the plot’s going, and a big revelation in the middle feels rather thrown-away. But it’s still absorbing and surprisingly thought-provoking – a worthy interpretation of Gaiman’s tale.
This is an ambitiously complex show: at one point, we’re watching a play within a play within a play, and it deserves considerable credit simply for the fact it manages to maintain a clear narrative thread running through. The choreography is near-perfect, too, showcasing the undoubted talents of a tightly-knit troupe of actors. The balance between the stories is far too wobbly for me, but if they can manage to fix that one big weakness, October In The Chair will be a hit for any season.