Review: The Gorbals Vampire at Citizens Theatre


Published by Glasgowist.

Armed to the teeth with bats, pots, pans, sticks, and even whisks as makeshift chibs, hundreds of Gorbals kids take to the gothic Southern Necropolis to have a square-go with the beast plaguing their town and eating their classmates in Johnny McKnight’s new play, The Gorbals Vampire.

With a moody and atmospheric elongated stage and the backdrop of a dark clouded sky stained orange with the fumes from the local iron works, a cast of local amateur actors provide authenticity, grit and welly in their portrayal of the fearless Gorbals weans who sneak up to the graveyard after dinner time one cold September night to slay the ‘man with the iron teeth’.

Directed by Guy Holland and Neil Packham, the production opens with a cast of adults dressed as Gorbals weans, hiding their trepidations with brave faces, led by the school hard nut as they tip-toe from behind the stalls, beside the audience, and onto the stage to the ‘gravey’ with weapons shaking in their hands.

Based on real-life events, McKnight’s new play, running over two nights during the Halloween weekend at Glasgow’s famous Citizens Theatre, gives new found substance, fiction and gore to a story which emerged from the Gorbals playground rumour mill in 1954. Said to be fuelled by a combination of imported American horror comics, superstition, local ghost stories, religious influences and old wives’ tales about the bogey man used to scare children into behaving, McKnight’s stage play creates a new inventive narrative for the story that was once reported around the world as two twin brothers go missing, leaving behind ‘two wee empty chairs’ in the classroom one day.

As Chinese whispers start to infect the playground, the rumour of the twins’ disappearance grows from them being off sick to a supposed unsavoury incident with their alcoholic father to them being eaten alive by a bloodsucking vampire who is said to creep behind the gravestones in the Southern Necropolis.

McKnight’s shrewd mix of authentic colloquial Scots, frights, side-splitting comedy and real-life meets folk myth makes for perfect Halloween viewing. Visually, The Gorbals Vampire is a smoky, rustic and gothic spectacle of sullen vampirical red and chiaroscuro lighting by Stuart Jenkins. But what really brings the production to life is the unique, feisty and hilarious characters within the diverse community cast who transport the audience to the heart of 1950s Glasgow, voicing their frustrations of being abandoned by the authorities and by the state which led the children to believe that they had to fend for themselves and take on the wean-eating beast without help from the grownups.

As the night grows darker and colder with mist crawling along the tombs, the large group of ‘kids’ aged between 4 and 14-years-old dwindles in size until only a handful of brave wee souls are left on stage along with a quaking policeman armed with a torch. As bumps and creaks come from the gravestones and woodland around them, the kids soon invent and exaggerate their oral narrative even further by suggesting that there could be a whole nest of vampires hidden underneath one particular gravestone.

Interspersed with spine-tingling music by Michael John McCarthy, The Gorbals Vampire incites fear that builds in momentum throughout the production as the audience looks around anxiously waiting for the monster to appear from somewhere, maybe behind the stalls, in the dress circle, or projected on the makeshift Gorbals night sky (a genius element of the production by Kim Beveridge). Thankfully, the tension is routinely cut with false scares and dry Scots humour as the audience laughs a little louder to settle their jangly nerves.

With creative and awe-inspiring choreography by Brigid McCarthy which brings the large cast together to morph into the dark shape of trees blowing in the wind and dozens of hands bending up and down onto the fearful audience, the creative minds behind this production pull out all the stops to create a tense, hair-raising atmosphere that gives the audience a good scare while still being playful and comical.

Starting from real-life events and growing into a beast of its own, much as the Gorbals rumours did back in 1954, McKnight has created his own adaptation of the ‘Case of the Gorbals Vampire’ and has invented a dramatic, fictionalised, frightening and hilarious telling of one of the most bizarre horror stories to ever be told in the Gorbals. The Gorbals Vampire is a short and sweet work of genius that reinvents and modernises a largely untold story with humour, heart and good old blood and guts.

Read my interview with playwright Johnny McKnight here.

What do you think of the Gorbals Vampire? Let me know in the comment section below.

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