Host – Living Record Festival

Written by Sam Essame

Directed by Lisa Millar

In a world where our implicit trust within technology leads to ease, there’s always an element of concern – of something lurking in the coding of a digital realm that might be trying to find a way out. Mingling the difficulties of homeschooling in a Pandemic era – and the complexities and red-tape teachers face in the struggle of maintaining professionalism and protection of children, Host ties together multiple engaging threads in this contemporary Horror, told over a Zoom format.

Unable to leave her home, young Julia is struggling with the fundamentals of English without the structure of school, and so tutor Faye is brought in to aid in her studies. Isolation is the buzzword of recent years. Categorically highlighted by the present climate of viral epidemics but nevertheless an issue people have faced for decades, Host takes this to new light and unearths the uncomfortableness of forced isolation.

But gradually, Faye realises that Julia is asking for help – whether this be in the symbolic nature of her writing, or the peculiar glitches and audio cues the production expertly stitches into the narrative. For Julia isn’t kept at home for what seems to be ordinary reasoning, as at first, it seems her father Graham may have a hand in refusing to allow his daughter to leave. And as their lessons continue, Host stretches the audience expectations, introducing a more sinister and supernatural element with puppetry and shadow play.

As Sam Essame’s writing takes small measures of movement forward, the tension and investment build through Host. But pacing unravels as the narrative takes setbacks pulling the plot back. And despite the delicate nature of Host, this reluctance to press forward does nothing more than stall momentum and raise questions about the authenticity of the characters. Annmarie Anang and Gracie Peters do their best to maintain momentum, but as their back-and-forth conversations grow and trust is established, repetition and stagnation creep in, weakening character motivation.

A short piece, there’s room for Host to either lose additional minutes and become a tightly constructed short or even extend itself and allow performers the room to fully divulge their capabilities – both Daniel Robinson and Rebecca McKinnis providing convincing performances as Julia’s parents but are restricted in how far they can take the role.

The centre of the piece surrounds the connection Faye and Julia establish, with Anang and Peters portraying the frustrations of a teacher desperate to help their student and the difficulties in expressing pain. Anyone who knows a teacher will understand the complexities of red tape surrounding a student’s home life, and even the boundaries of comfort they can offer. Anang communicates this frustration in an exemplary and even distressing manner – audiences desperately begging her to be more open with Julia, but understanding the restrictions imposed. Reserved, Peters makes a perfect Julia, subtle in her cries for help, distraught but maintaining a brave face masking the trauma she has gone through.

Danse Macabre production’s subvert audience expectations, and arguably prejudices, by transitioning the implicated horrors of a family to one of something supernatural. Uniquely, Lisa Millar’s direction places the production in a middle-ground of effectiveness, too long to be concise and snappy, too short to effectively build dread. Host demonstrates potential with the familiarity streaming media with which we have become accustomed, but too many setbacks and uneasy footings stop Host from being all it could be.

Originally published for The Reviews Hub

The Living Record Festival runs 17th January – 22nd February. Available to stream here

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