One granddaughter (Stella Reid) is tasked with cleaning out her recently deceased Grandmother’s basement. Amongst all the oddities that a lifetime tends to accumulate, she stumbles across something slightly more mysterious:a series of tapes her Grandmother has recorded herself on. As Reid gets closer to the truth of the mystery she finds on them, her entire world begins to shift and disintegrate.
What struck me most about the show was it’s captivating design elements. The lighting, sound, and space design (by Jason Longstaff, Thomas Lambert, and Oliver Morse respectively) feel like characters in themselves, working with (and sometimes against) Reid to push the plot along. The lighting design is initially subtle, yet over the course of the play begins to take on a menacing life of its own. Lights flicker and switch themselves on and off unpredictably. It’s a simple trick, yet one of the most effective pieces of lighting I’ve encountered.
The sound design on the other hand, has a strong presence throughout. Much like the lights, the sound seems to become a more sinister being as the plot progresses. The show begins by blasting out popular music, with Reid busting out some truly spectacular dance moves. At this point, the sound is more silly than sinister, but as Reid’s reality begins to shift, the sound follows suit.
Of course, with a title like ‘The Basement Tapes’, perhaps the heavy presence of sound design is unsurprising. We expect music, sound, recordings, to be present in some significant way. Beyond the literal recordings we hear on the tapes, sound was also a key part of what made the show so terrifying. At times the noise swelled to fill the propeller stage, enveloping the audience and creating a sense of cloying claustrophobia. This is a sizeable task, particularly as the changed seating configuration meant the maximum audience capacity was less than your average show in the Propeller Stage. It’s always exciting seeing a show that gives audiences new ways to interact with a familiar space. It felt apt for this play - there is a delicious sense of trepidation, an exploration into the unknown as soon as you enter.
Morse’s eye for detail recreated the feel of an old basement was enjoyable to examine. The amount of junk crammed in and up against the walls was reminiscent of many family homes, making it relatable and nostalgic. The realism also gives the whole work a vague feeling of grief - seeing all that stuff piled up provides a brush with mortality in an incredibly tangible sense.
The play constantly tears between terror and anticipation to awkward comedy, and Reid navigates these tonal shifts with ease and confidence. It’s an interesting dance, but with Reid giving such a strong, clear performance, the shifts are easy to follow. There are several other surprise performances. One comes from Keegan Bragg, who provides an innocuous intrusion into the bizarre rabbit-hole Reid is falling down, and another from Marjorie McKee, who, as Reid’s Grandmother, speaks beyond the grave and gives voice to the heart of the mystery.
The real driving-force behind The Basement Tapes is the mystery of the plot. Sinking into the storytelling through McKee's voice provided some of the most spine-tingling moments the show has to offer. As we delved into the real crux of the story, you could feel the room collectively holding its breath. It was easy to feel Reid’s frustration as she struggled to piece together the rest of the story - it mimicked our own frustrations, and growing sense of unease.
When the mystery is finally concluded and all is revealed (albeit ambiguously), I was left wanting more. I felt like an emotional beat was missing, that there was some kind of resolution I was craving that never came. I was left to wonder if the show exists mainly for the pleasure of it’s plot and the satisfaction of a good reveal. Although, this isn’t something that makes The Basement Tapes unsuccessful or unentertaining. There is a great deal of satisfaction to be gained in the exploration of suspense and the grim unravelling of a mystery, particularly one this well crafted. The Basement Tapes sets out to spook you, to leave you on the edge of your seat, and to take you for a ride you weren’t quite expecting. It’s never been such a pleasure to be so thoroughly thrilled.
The Basement Tapes runs until Sunday 3 June at BATS Theatre, with its show starting at 8:00pm. For ticketing information, visit the BATS Theatre website.