After the acclaimed performances of Coming Home on the Isle of Lismore and the recent success of the Hidden Jewel in Dunollie, Dunoon’s Argyll Hotel was wondering quite what would happen on Saturday night with the Walking Theatre Company’s new murder mystery, The Haunted Hotel. Would spirits be raised that might refuse to go back whence they had come? The occasion did not disappoint – this was theatre in all senses of the word.
The Argyll Hotel, The Walking Theatre Company and Treasure Trails ScotWest came together to create a weekend package of murder, mystery and (in this case) ghosts. With Dunoon acting as backdrop for the Saturday clue-hunt and the hotel as the stage for the action on Friday and Saturday night, these game partners have provided a perfect entertainment package for folks who want to get away for a couple of nights and exercise everything from their sleuthing skills to their laughing gear, with not a little audience participation in between.
Our reviewer was mightily entertained. Haunted Hotel as a play is bawdy, outrageous, clever and ridiculously funny. It does this while including, or perhaps because it includes, the audience as members of the cast. Like the Hidden Jewel, TWTC bring in members of the assembled diners to play. Because none of these enthusiastic press-gangees are entirely sober (there were a couple of Hen parties in on the night) they enter into the action without (very m)any inhibitions.
The story goes something like this: a very rich oil baron and hotel-chain owner called Septimus De’Ath has died and his fortune will, unless they are married, go to his nephew Hector Plasm (Liam Calgie) and his niece Lucy Fur (Sadie Dixon-Spain) (you’ll be getting the flavour of this now). The on-the-make administrator of the fortune, Paul Tiberius Geist (Simon Linell), is present as the occasion which brings all and sundry together is a charity bash at which a million pounds will be awarded to the winning charity (the charities being played by the audience). Confused? It all becomes clearer as the action picks up pace and the Madame-Arkaty-character of Nancy Boyce (Rebbecca Bloom) makes her timely, and not all too corporeal entrance.
After a story, a disappearance and various unseemly shenanigans on the Friday night, including ouija board and a guided tour of the Argyll Hotel’s spookier corners, the audience are invited to join the hunt for clues during the day on the Saturday, with prizes for the correct entries.
We asked the groups we were sitting with in the evening how they fared during the day, and all seemed to have enjoyed the trail. As one lady from Edinburgh said, ‘I wouldn’t have walked around the town today at all, but instead I saw things and exercised my brain. It was great. And the people are so friendly in Dunoon. You quite forget how friendly they are on the West Coast’. So big thumbs up for both Treasure Trails and Dunoon.
Armed with their clues from the day’s sleuthing, and dressed up to the nines (or fairies if you were one of the hen parties), all assembled for the evening’s entertainment in the bar. The action kicks off with gusto and is all the more entertaining for the heckles, the excellent put downs and the weirded out passers-by who watch on with incredulity as sixty hotel guests and these larger than life characters ricochet around the ground floor of the Argyll Hotel. Paul T. Geist’s smooth and ingratiating trans-atlantic drawl re-introduces us to this special world of sexual innuendo, dark doings and darker motives, and invites us to fathom what he and his erstwhile cohorts are up to exactly.
Things are even more raucous in the dining room when we get there. Not only have many of the audience partaken of serious libation but they are there to be seriously amused, and there is no lack of opportunity for laughter. The play is shaped around the courses of the dinner, and surprisingly the players sup with the audience. This is a coup, not only because we get to talk to these game folk as their characters, but because during the main course there’s so much hilarious off-script badinage that audience and cast are in danger of creating another Carry On . . . classic. Particularly memorable were Liam Calgie teasing a group of boys unmercifully with Hector, his high camp hotelier, and the effervescent Lucy Fur (Sadie Dixon-Spain) who brought Essex-iness to the fray.
By the end of the evening when the prizes were handed out and as the coffee cups were refilled, theatre company and audience were one jubilant, albeit exhausted, collective beast, having uncovered who did the murder(s), where the skeletons were hidden, and who the man in the waistcoat was.
The bonus? Well for the Argyll Hotel this is an arts event which is regularly filling beds in the off-season, and which creates a real buzz and repeat custom. Talking to the management of the hotel afterwards, it seems there are parties that have returned to see all three of the productions (listed below) and are already inquiring about new plays next year (of which there are two). This looks like being an ongoing success story which, given the present debate on this site about how to make the connection between the arts and tourism dollars, shows us a totally unsubsidised working model.
17th-19th October – Jamie’s Secret
6th-8th November – Spying Tonight
13th-15th November – Haunted Hotel
4th-6th December – Jamie’s Secret