Review by Ian McArdell
Released just in time to chill the seasonal blood, Bafflegab Productions have put a modern spin on MR James’ classic 1904 short story, “The Ash-Tree”.
Presented as a full-cast audio drama, the essence of this supernatural revenge tale remains intact. While the original was set in the both 1690 and some sixty years after, here things are brought thoroughly up to date. Sir Richard Fell becomes Rachel Fell, who has managed to purchase her family’s ancestral home with a recent inheritance. With her partner Simon, the pair intend to restore Castringham Hall and use it as a base for his business. Wishing to know more about the building’s past, they have engaged the services of a local historian who gladly fills in some of the details – particularly those relating to the actions of its 17th century resident Sir Matthew.
The adaptation, by Matthew Holness (of Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace fame), sets the whole tale in the present day. While other adaptations have related the historic element of the story through visions, here Mr Crome serves as our window on past – the sordid details of which he illuminates with just a dash of sensationalist relish. The script weaves in modern elements too; Castringham Hall is beset with poor mobile coverage and Rachel’s building plans provoke the ire of the local council. Holness also works in relationship tensions, due to the Rachel and Simon’s inability to have children, which adds a powerful emotional undercurrent to the proceedings and nods to the original story’s curse.
Amanda Abbington plays the grieving Rachel with a powerful indignance, in stark counterpoint to Reece Shearsmith’s mild-mannered Simon. While she is driven to bibliomancy to direct her actions, Simon remains reasonable for the most part and keen to rescue their relationship with this fresh start. John Sessions delights as the fussy Crome, whose motives keep you guessing throughout. The cast is rounded out by Matthew Holness himself and Margaret Cabourn-Smith, who join the tale as visiting friends.
Though the short-story is just over five thousand words, this dramatisation fills the best part of an hour without either feeling unhurried or padded. Director Simon Barnard allows the tension levels to build gently, with plenty of gruesome twists and turns on the way to a horrific conclusion. The whole affair is reinforced by some delightfully unsettling sound design from Simon Robinson and music from Edwin Sykes.
‘The Ash Tree’ is a smart updating of this classic tale and a fine example of the long-held tradition of festive chillers.
Available from Bafflegab Productions on both CD and download from 6th December 2019.
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