This all-female horror story is deliciously spine-tingling, yet riven through with comedy, too. The tale surrounds a family - a mother, three daughters, and a mysterious friend - who re-unite for the first time in years after their father’s funeral. The father was a doll-maker, there’s an ominous locked workshop… and it goes without saying that a secret’s buried somewhere in the family’s past.
The exposition-heavy introductory scenes drag a little, but once the story proper begins to unroll, the plotting is tight and the mystery intriguing. Playwright Nic Lamont borrows cheerily from gothic tropes, yet adds enough contemporary flavour to give it a modern spin. Playing podcaster Christine, Holly Morgan anchors the action perfectly - driving the investigation relentlessly while not entirely immune to the gruesome truth she reveals.
The tone is creepy more that out-and-out scary, and Lamont adds plenty of humour to leaven the horror. Much of it’s supplied by matriarch Rose, played with a glorious mix of the louche and the sharp by the impressive Rosy Fordham. Some of the fourth-wall-busting goes a touch too far for me - it’s a shame to pierce a bubble you’ve worked so hard to create - but the script has an enjoyable self-awareness, lampooning not just the clichés it echos but even the decaying space we’re watching it in in.
And it uses that space well. Sound and lighting are perfectly judged, adding to the mood and occasionally to the comedy. To the side of the stage, a linked story is played out in a shadow-theatre; Rebecca O’Brien’s puppetry is crisp and evocative, and the voice-over narration delivers some truly skin-crawling moments within what’s ostensibly a tale from a children’s book.
I didn’t entirely follow every aspect of the ending but, in a show that’s all about our penchant for historical mysteries, I can live with there being one or two questions that aren’t quite resolved. The wrap-up is pleasing in any case: as surprising as I’d hoped for, as macabre as I’d expected, and with a couple of false leads to keep you on your toes.
So there’s room to tighten a couple of scenes, but What The Dolls Saw is a hugely enjoyable play. It’s amusingly aware of its own melodrama - yet there’s something genuinely disturbing lying at its heart. Make sure it’s one of the things you saw at the Vault this year.