I saw Robert Lloyd Parry, self-described storyteller, perform twice last summer at the NecronomiCon in Providence, Rhode Island. Seated in a darkened theatre lit only by candles, he didn’t simple tell us stories, but rendered highly dramatic recitations of M.R. James’s ghostly tales with character voices, one or two props, and expressive emotion whenever the narrative called for it. He was the surprise sensation of the Con; I wasn’t the only person present who’d never heard of him before, but came away a fan of his work.
When I found out earlier this year that some of his performances were available on DVD, I ordered a couple. The one I was most interested in getting a copy of was Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, the first story I saw performed in Providence.
You can read MR James’s original story online. I’ve also previously reviewed the 1968 BBC adaptation starring Michael Hordern as the rationalist Professor Parkins, whose views on the supernatural are drastically altered when he finds an ancient whistle and accidentally summons a spirit that forms a body for itself from the sheets on the spare bed in his hotel room.
This performance of Oh, Whistle was filmed at Hemingford Grey Manor by Christopher Thom. The setting is similar to those Mr. Parry used during his NecronomiCon appearances, except that there is only one candle. His face and arms are all that is visible. The rest is darkness. This creates not only a feeling of intimacy with the storyteller, but makes an effective use of screen space–I didn’t realize how much of my TV screen was actually in use until there were gestures beyond that that small halo of light.
The only props Parry uses are a large, white handkerchief and what stands in for the whistle that Parkins finds in the ruins of the Templar altar.
“He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure–how employed, he could not tell.”
We don’t get a close look at it and when he blows into it, it doesn’t sound any kind of note. At first viewing, I didn’t think he actually held anything in his hands and was miming an object, but there is a distinct sound of something metallic clattering when he drops in on the floor prior to describing how the professor cleans and blows into the whistle.
The handkerchief is used twice to very good effect. First during Parkins’s repeating night vision of a terrified man on a deserted beach:
So far no cause whatever for the fear of the runner had been shown; but now there began to be seen, far up the shore, a little flicker of something light-coloured moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity. Rapidly growing larger, it, too, declared itself as a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined. There was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters. It would stop, raise arms, bow itself towards the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the water-edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying.”
During this description of the figure’s movements, the white handkerchief darts about in the darkness. Parry uses it almost as a hand-puppet at the end of the scene when:
“After two or three ineffectual castings hither and thither it came to a stop, stood upright, with arms raised high, and then darted straight forward towards the groyne.”
The handkerchief reappears at the climax of the story, when Parkins wakes in the night “to see a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed.”
In a wonderful little moment of theatre, during the point in the story where the sheeted figure catches Parkins, Parry casts the handkerchief over his own face to give us a glimpse of that “intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen.”
The DVD also includes some extra features.
Rats: A rehearsed reading
Robert Lloyd Parry reads M.R. James’s Rats. This is apparently an earlier performance by Parry; it’s not in his usual stage setting, he looks a bit younger, and he’s reading from the text held in one hand.
It’s a short story about a young man, staying at an inn, who opens the door to a locked room and sees what at first glance appears to be a scarecrow propped up on the bed. Parry laughs out loud to express the young man’s sense of relief at this discovery, and then quickly shifts to horror:
“Have scarecrows bare bony feet? Do their heads loll on to their shoulders? Have they iron collars and links of chain about their necks? Can they get up and move, if never so stiffly, across a floor, with wagging head and arms close at their sides? and shiver?”
Like The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, this is one of MR James’s stories that I will not read at bedtime.
Wits in Felixstowe: A documentary
Robert Lloyd Parry takes us on a tour of the places in Felixstowe that the settings for the “Burnstow” of Oh, Whistle are based upon. He also talks about James’s connection to the town, his friends, and one specific incident that may have inspired MR James to write this story.
I’ll review this documentary separately.
Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad: Music Video
Patricia Hammond sings the lyrics of the Robert Burn’s song at Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare in Hampton.