Monday 6th June 2022 at the King’s Head Theatre, London.
Reviewer: Jonathan Walfisz
Often a play comes with a mission statement. But few plays that I have seen recently have carried their mission statement so proudly.
“The Haunting of Susan A” at the King’s Head Theatre is Mark Ravenhill’s latest play, who is also the co-artistic director of the theatre. Billed as a site responsive piece, Ravenhill’s play invites the audience to “become a part of local history” of London’s oldest pub theatre.
To do this, he takes us on a thrill-ride horror story of the theatre’s mythic past, creating an enjoyable ghost story out of the possibility that the pub theatre spent a period as an illegal boxing ring.
But instead of getting stuck in history, the play’s mission statement is to show audiences why a pub theatre like the King’s Head is still relevant today as a place to electrify audiences with exciting experiences.
As we enter the auditorium, Ravenhill is sat in the wings and kindly guides people to their seats. Although Ravenhill has an impressive enough theatre CV to probably get away with skulking about backstage, his friendly manner sets an immediately comfortable tone in the black box room.
Ravenhill then begins the play casually, chatting to the audience before launching into a monologue that charts the King’s Head from its earliest days and potential associations with Shakespeare to its time as a boxing ring.
That is until Ravenhill is rudely interrupted by an audience member, who, it turns out is Susan A.
Played by Suzanne Ahmet, who was somewhat cleverly hidden in the programme under the guise of “creative” instead of actor. Ahmet claws the narrative away from Ravenhill’s fun and friendly history lecture to delve into a grim mystery of murder and ghosts.
Ahmet takes us on an excellently drawn out horror story. She was once an aspiring actor who rehearsed a play at the King’s Head only for all to go awry when the spectre of a woman haunts her and the previous actor she replaced.
The telling of the story is kept in the reality of the room, with both actors regularly involving the crowd, for duties ranging from zipping up a dress to reading bits of the script.
Alongside a couple of genuinely terrifying lighting jump-scares, Ahmet and Ravenhill also manage to create a palpable sense of dread for the spectre throughout the narrative.
With just a bit of lighting, ambient noise and fantastic acting, you truly feel the presence of a ghost grasping at each of the actor’s shoulders.
I wondered at first why they’d chosen a ghost story as a way of telling the theatre’s past, but then it made complete sense. The ghostly presence became, for me, an embodiment of why the King’s Head Theatre is such a wonderful place.
With just sharp acting and good writing, something supernatural took place. I, for a second, while knowing I was sitting in a theatre in Islington, believed there was a ghost standing behind an actor.
The magic of the ghost story is it’s a way we can comfortably indulge in our least rational, most supernatural beliefs. It’s why the theatre is a magical place and why a ghost story is the perfect way to tell the story of why London’s oldest pub theatre still has an important place on a high street.
But beyond the fun of a ghost story, Ravenhill also has a bigger point to make. As the story takes its increasingly morbid turns towards its final conclusion, it’s clear he won’t shy away from uncomfortable narratives with the King’s Head.
As Ahmet yells the haunting final line of the play, after spending much time demanding to speak over Ravenhill, it’s clear he is interested in creating a space that lives up to the mission statement of championing voices beyond his own. I’m excited to see what they commission next.
The Haunting of Susan A plays the King’s Head Theatre, London until June 26th 2022 – you can find tickets here.