The Haunting of Alice Bowles review – murder at a time of plague

This supernatural thriller is based on a little-known MR James story about murder and attempted resurrection in a time of plague. Like so many of James’s tales, The Experiment is over in a matter of a few pages: a wife kills her mean husband but tries to conjure his spirit so that she can discover where he hid all his earthly treasure.

Philip Franks’s adaptation turns that lean tale into a richer drama about abuse, revenge, paedophilia and occultist practices without losing any of its tautness. James’s 1931 story takes place in an unspecified past in which there is a “sickness” that is believed to refer to the bubonic plague. Here, it is shown to be the Spanish flu of 1918, and a parallel, contemporary plotline features a cash-strapped millennial couple during the Covid lockdown.

Matt and Caitlin (Max Bowden and Alexandra Guelff) become investigators of the past hoping to find buried treasure themselves. The story flips between their adventures, which are fed into a YouTube channel, and that of the 1918 drama involving a “paedo-sadist monster” who is said to have believed in the devil, the late Francis Bowles, along with Alice Bowles (Tamzin Outhwaite), his whey-faced widow, and Joseph (Jack Archer), her abused son.

The action begins in the present day, with the young couple looking for Francis’s grave at night, their faces alone lit by torchlight, and there is a lurching quality to the imagery to give the effect of the hand-held camera with which they are filming themselves. It is a scene in the style of the The Blair Witch Project, and seems almost spoofy in its deliberate wobbliness.

Made remotely under lockdown conditions by Original Theatre Company, it is their fourth such online production using remote technology and split-screen filming, and reunites several members of the cast from their previous drama, Birdsong, including Stephen Boxer as Dr Hall, who oversees the parish graveyard, Poppy Roe as his housekeeper, and Tim Treloar, who plays a delightfully creepy boatman, as well as Archer.

It is elegantly co-directed by Franks and Alastair Whatley and edited by Tristan Shepherd, but the split screen appears more pronounced and jarring than it did earlier this year, perhaps because we have seen online dramas using a broader range of techniques, but also because we have been reminded of the impact of live theatre in the pauses between lockdowns.

The outdoor scenes, such as those in the graveyard, are far more vivid compared with those inside, in which actors are superimposed on backdrops of dusty sitting rooms and staircases. It is all the more remarkable then that the atmosphere remains suspenseful throughout and the cast is uniformly strong, with Outhwaite standing out as Francis’s long-suffering wife. She plays Alice with the embittered imperiousness and gloom of a Miss Havisham. While James’s story never once inhabits her emotional life, here, her torments are made vivid along with those of her son, and we feel their plight.

It is quite an achievement to turn such a slight story into an hour-long drama with so many added elements, but because that tale is so thin and its ending pat, the denouement feels underwhelming, despite the power of the performances.