The mist swirls around the stage at Chichester Festival Theatre, transporting the audience back 100 years to the murky gloom of the harbour salt marshes and threatening a deep foreboding of what was to come.
Kate Mosse, local lady and renowned author of historical and eerie, supernatural romps, has turned one of her books, The Taxidermist’s Daughter, into a gothic horror story for the stage.
At least that’s what it said on the cover. The reality is that this tale of retribution and revenge is as derivative and hackneyed as an old Hammer Horror or any number of TV dramas.
Indeed, as the play’s programme freely admits, it’s been a popular dramatic theme since Ancient Greece or Rome.
It’s a tired concept. What more can be said unless there’s something new and innovative that can be injected into the genre?
In the case of The Taxidermist’s Daughter, its edge is that it’s set in the theatre’s home town and its references are known and acknowledged by the mainly local audience.
But while the melodramatic dialogue may be a page-turner in award-winning Mosse’s thrilling novel, it translates badly to the stage.
The plot is muddled and as leaky as the salt marshes of Fishbourne where it’s set. The two-dimensional characters have no flesh on their bones and are so stereotyped that I half expected one of them to twirl his moustache and ravage the maid (except that had been done in the exposition).
The story fails to evoke any fear or trepidation and left me wondering if some vital plot points from the book were jettisoned in the translation.
What, after all, was the trigger that set the story in motion a whole ten years after a terrible incident had occurred?
Thankfully no animals were gutted and stuffed in the making of this drama – although a few dead corvids decorate the stage – but things don’t end well for the wrongdoers in this sorry tale.
It could have been a bloodbath (and I half expected a Lear moment when there was talk of eyeballs popping out) but theatre-goers were spared the worst.
A lunatic woman and her friend escape the local asylum where they’d been for the best part of a decade.
One, Vera, is ‘not all there’ according to the locals who know her and she features so briefly that she’s little more than a plot device.
But her friend, Cassie Pine (Pearl Chanda), had been living as a private patient in the sanitorium since something happened to her in a taxidermy museum run by Crowley Gifford.
Cassie is hell bent on revenge and decides to take action against a group of entitled local businessmen who had a history of committing foul deeds against young women.
Their cards are marked and, one by one, they pay for their sins in a most brutal fashion.
Meanwhile Gifford’s daughter, Connie, who has conveniently suffered amnesia since an accident during Cassie’s ordeal, is beginning to recollect the past.
There’s a race against time to find the demented Pine and stop her murderous campaign of retribution.
Meanwhile there is a murderer to unearth, people to find, Connie’s memories to return and a possible romance to establish – and all before a terrible storm engulfs a coastal cottage containing a terrible scene.
Director Róisín McBrinn has gone to town on the visual effects and some work better than others.
There’s flashing lights and impressive video effects of rain and stormy seas which prove a drier alternative to the tried and tested flooding the Festival Theatre stage.
A series of boxes, mainly containing taxidermy, rise and fall on stage while a larger box judders forward to reveal the inside of Vera’s cottage where Pine is holed up.
The cast dash about trying to whip up tension and fear but with little purpose or success.
Forbes Masson’s guilt-riddled Gifford disappears early on as does Raad Rawi’s devilish doctor, Jack Woolston, starting a half-hearted manhunt, only for them to reappear much later.
Key characters are on stage so briefly that there’s no time to get acquainted, and the chipper servants sound like they’re moonlighting from Downton Abbey.
Sometimes there’s a case to be made for novelists stepping away from their work and letting experienced playwrights adapt their books for the stage.
The Taxidermist’s Daughter is arguably a great read but Mosse has failed to deliver a coherent and engrossing stage adaptation.
The Taxidermist’s Daughter runs in the Festival Theatre until April 30.
The Taxidermist's Daughter
The Taxidermist's Daughter
Evocative and dark, Kate Mosse’s debut play, The Taxidermist’s Daughter, may be based on a great book but it proves a less than thrilling stage adaptation