Monday, 16 September 2019

Review: Red Dust Road (National Theatre of Scotland and HOME, Manchester)

Thursday 12th September 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Thursday 12th September, I was at HOME, Manchester for the press night of Red Dust Road, a co-production by National Theatre of Scotland and HOME. I’ll be reviewing the play on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Sasha Frost. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Red Dust Road is Tanika Gupta’s stage adaptation of Jackie Kay’s memoir of growing up as a child of mixed heritage adopted by white parents. Kay’s memoir explores question of identity, belonging and family, as it describes the writer’s decision to search for her birth parents, and the outcomes of that search. The source material for Gupta’s adaptation is written in fragmentary, non-linear and poetic prose – a challenging text to bring to life on stage. The resulting production meets some of these challenges well; however, it is a somewhat uneven piece that also falls flat in places.

The audience is introduced to Simon Kenny’s striking set design from the moment they arrive in the auditorium. Indeed, as I took my seat I overheard a number of conversations around me, as people discussed the significance of the set dressing visible on stage. An enormous frame hangs centre stage, its right-hand side metamorphosing into a dramatic tree branch. Before the play even began, audience members were pondering the symbolism here: a meeting of the organic and inorganic? the natural and the artificial? the distortion of a mirror, suggestive of conflicted identity?

At various points in the play, Kenny’s arresting set design (along with Dawn Walton's direction) is put to good use. It functions as a screen, for instance, subtitling the time and place of the vignettes we are watching, an important addition, as Gupta’s adaptation retains the episodic, non-linear structure of Kay’s narrative; it also, more creatively, functions as a stage-within-a-stage, with figures gathering in shadows behind the performers to illustrate and interject. On a couple of occasions, performers burst from this stage-within-a-stage and into the main performance area, giving a powerful sense of fluidity and energy to the staging.

However, while the frame device is used well, the rest of the minimal set design is rather overshadowed. Aside from the backdrop, little dressing is used, and I found myself wondering whether the main drama would have been better staged as a studio piece. Many of the scenes are intimate and ‘small’, with two or three characters sitting closely together on chairs, examining photo albums or sharing cups of tea. The familiarity of these pieces is rather dwarfed by the grandiose set design, which detracts from the more personal nature of some dialogue.

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden and Sasha Frost. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

In a similar vein, the adaptation itself has an uneven feel to it. While some of Kay’s more poetic narration is retained and dramatized – a scene in which Jackie’s adoptive mother and birth mother offer contrasting accounts of the day she was born is a particular strong point – some of the power of the memoir is lost in its translation to the stage. There is little sense of peril or suspense here: Jackie’s coming-out to her adoptive mother, for instance, receives a negative reaction but no further consequence or exploration. And Jackie’s arrival on the eponymous ‘Red Dust Road’ in Nigeria – which, surely, should have been a climactic scene – is almost glossed over as a transitional episode, with the dangerous twelve-hour journey described in Kay’s book collapsed into a short travel sequence.

There are some strong performances in Red Dust Road. A number of the cast play multiple parts and, on the whole, this is done very well and lends the play a sense of vitality and energy. Elaine C. Smith and Lewis Howden shine as Jackie’s adoptive Scottish parents, Helen and John. Simone Cornelius and Seroca Davis are compelling as AJ and Claire, the women who help Jackie to explore and celebrate her identity as a black woman (and Davis also gives a very good performance as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has her own part to play in Jackie’s journey). Irene Allan plays Jackie’s birth mother Elizabeth with a wonderful brittleness, undercut with a fragility and fear that is never quite articulated. I especially enjoyed the scene in which Jackie and Elizabeth meet for the first time, each proffering a gift-boxed orchid to the other, and its poignant (and anti-climactic) restraint.

Seroca Davis and Simone Cornelius. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Despite this, the central performance – Sasha Frost as Jackie – feels somewhat underdone. That’s not to say that Frost isn’t rather charming in her hopeful and happy portrayal of the memoir’s narrator, but the part lacks any real sense of texture. Interestingly, despite the play moving about in time from the late 60s to the 2000s, Frost’s portrayal of Jackie is remarkably constant: her performance (and costume) doesn’t alter much, whether the character is meant to be 7 or 40 years old, as though we are watching an adult Jackie move amongst her own memories – an apt translation of the memoir style onto the stage. Less successful, however, is the emotional constancy of the performance. Frost’s Jackie is consistently hopeful throughout, even during some of the harsher moments in the story.

A scene of racist bullying is depicted, and others described, but the script omits some of the violence of Kay’s memoir. Most notably, Kay’s brutal description of a racist attack sustained at a tube station is excised, leaving us somewhat detached from the racial abuse that is, almost exclusively, told but not shown. This is not entirely a bad thing – the play, like Kay’s book, doesn’t dwell on struggle, but rather celebrates positive relationships. Nevertheless, the general lack of conflict lessens the force of Jackie’s quest. While there are some tears, these do not last long, and the adaptation is frequently in danger of downplaying some of the more painful elements of the Kay’s story. Again, something of the urgency and danger of Kay’s memoir of a search for identity is lost in a production that feels determined to remain optimistically and resolutely upbeat.

Overall, there is much to commend in this production, but it doesn’t quite hit the notes of its source material. Engaging performances make for a fun and compelling piece of theatre, but some of the potency of Kay’s memoir is lost in its translation to the stage.

Red Dust Road is on at HOME, Manchester from the 11th-21st September.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

3 Minute Scares is back for its fourth frightful year!


North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate wants your scary stories for Halloween! She’s asking people throughout Greater Manchester to submit their scariest 3-minute stories for her annual creative writing competition. Writers keen to be crowned Greater Manchester’s Spookiest Wordsmith can submit a recording of their mini-tale via Hannah’s website, with the best entries being broadcast on the Halloween edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday 26th October.

This year’s 3 Minute Scares competition will be judged by novelist Andy Remic and Emily Oldfield of HAUNT Manchester, with the writer of the best entry receiving a prize from Breakout Manchester, the real-life escape room game. Entries need to be 3 minutes long, meaning a word count of around 350-400 words. The judges will be looking for style and originality, as well as how scary the story is. The deadline for entries is Thursday 17th October, at midnight.

Last year’s competition was won by Keri Moriarty, who impressed the judges with a stylish but unsettling tale. North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate says: ‘Keri’s winning story was really well-written – she got so much atmosphere into such a short space of time. Each year, I’m impressed with the different ways writers handle the constraints of telling a story in just three minutes. There’s a lot of talent out there, and I’m looking forward to seeing what people across our region submit for this year’s competition.’

All writers need to enter the competition is a computer with a microphone… and a good story. Entries can be recorded via Hannah’s website. More information and rules of the competition, including information for people unable to submit a recording, can also be found on the website.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Review: No Man’s Land (London Classic Theatre)

Friday 5th September 2019
Oldham Coliseum Theatre

I haven’t posted any theatre reviews for over a month, but it’s time to get back into it. I attended the press night of London Classic Theatre’s revival of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at Oldham Coliseum on Friday 5th September. You can hear the radio version of the review on North Manchester FM tomorrow, but here’s the blog version…

Moray Treadwell as Hirst in No Man's Land

London Classic Theatre’s new production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land began its national tour at Oldham Coliseum this month, opening on Friday 5th September.

No Man’s Land has been described both as Pinter’s most ‘enigmatic’ play, but also as the most ‘poetic’. With a deceptively simple set-up and a single set, No Man’s Land balances on a knife-edge of comedy and menace throughout. Set in the living room of a North-West London mansion, No Man’s Land opens with two men in their sixties returning after a night out and continuing their drinking session. Or rather, one of them is returning. The other is a guest – or is he? The mansion belongs to Hirst, a rich and successful writer and essayist. His companion is Spooner, a shabbier, down-at-heel man, who is also a writer. When Hirst overindulges and is forced to crawl to his bed, two younger men (Foster and Briggs) make their entrance, and it’s clear that things may not be quite as they seem.

Memories – or their absence – play an important role in No Man’s Land. It has been described as a play about being haunted by memories, but it also offers a searing (often humorous) exploration of the ‘game’ of memory. In the second act, Hirst mistakes Spooner for someone he knew at Oxford (or is the recognition accurate?) and begins to ‘remember’ that he once had an affair with his wife. At this, Spooner jumps into the roleplay, ‘remembering’ his own sordid tale to beat that of his companion. Are any of these memories real? Do the men really share a past? In a similar vein, Briggs expounds on the circumstances of his meeting Foster, but he insists that Foster will deny his account and say it happened differently. So, can we believe anything of Briggs’s account?

Pinter’s play is cryptic and illusory about the connections and relationships between the four men – in typical style, their names and backgrounds are not entirely stable – and the script moves (often rapidly) between fragmentary dialogue and lyrical (though sometimes almost arbitrary) monologue. It is a challenging piece for both performers and directors.

Fortunately, London Classic Theatre are more than up to the task and have created a production that both charms and unsettles the audience. Director Michael Cabot makes powerful use of space, moving the four performers around the stage in almost circular motion, with Hirst’s armchair set in the centre. The circling of the armchair immediately conjures a world that revolves around its central figure (their ‘host’, as Foster repeatedly dubs Hirst), but there is also a feeling of more predatory inclinations in the performers’ movements around the seated figure (mostly Hirst, sometimes Spooner, but never Briggs or Foster). A single door to the room is used for the stage entrances and exits, which has the disconcerting effect of both conjuring a world outside the room and closing it off from our view.

Cabot’s direction is enhanced by Andy Grange’s lighting design and Bek Palmer’s set. In the play’s second act, the lighting is used effectively to draw our attention to the binary oppositions of inside/outside and day/night, without us moving from Palmer’s simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic living room.

The four actors give great performances in the production. Moray Treadwell plays Hirst with convincingly inebriated authority. For much of the play, Hirst occupies the single armchair at the centre of the stage – with the other characters revolving around him – but Treadwell’s performance shifts Hirst’s seated position from imperious to vulnerable by turns. Nicholas Gasson’s Spooner is a blank – and I don’t mean that as a criticism – absorbing some of the nastier insults of the play with an unnerving impassiveness that constantly hints that Spooner knows more about what’s going on than he’s admitting.

Graham O'Mara as Briggs in No Man's Land

Graham O’Mara plays Briggs with an appropriate air of menace and threat; however, his performance stays on the right side of thuggishness. In the second act – with the costume and lighting change signalling, temporarily, that daylight might bring some new clarity, O’Mara brings out Briggs’s more reflective side. Briggs’s monologue about how to get to Bolsover Street is one of my favourite parts of Pinter’s script, and O’Mara delivers it very well here. For me, though, the standout performance was Joel Macey as Foster. At once threatening, fey, calm, bright and mean, Macey’s performance is uncomfortable and yet eminently watchable. He set the tone with his very first line, making the ostensibly innocent question (‘Who are you? What are you drinking?) both friendly and alarming in equal measure.

It’s inevitable that any revival of No Man’s Land will invite comparisons with previous productions. High-profile productions have seen the roles of Hirst and Spooner in the hands of ‘theatrical royalty’ (Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen). And in 2001, Pinter’s own revival of the play cast Danny Dyer as Foster – perhaps not ‘theatrical royalty’, but certainly someone with an iconic style and persona. Wisely, the cast here put these illustrious predecessor performances right out of their minds – there is no hint of imitation and no invitation to comparison, and Treadwell, Gasson, O’Mara and Macey make Hirst, Spooner, Briggs and Foster their own, suggesting different dimensions and emphasizing different undertones in their performances.

While there are some great individual performances here, the cast also work well as an ensemble. No Man’s Land is a disconcerting play, but it is also a funny one. Much of the humour derives from the performers’ unspoken responses, and the cast here handle this well. The innuendo-driven homosexual subtext (‘Do you often hang about on Hampstead Heath?’) is treated adeptly, almost like an in-joke or shared understanding between the four men, but to which the audience is never fully admitted.

Overall, this is a skilful and impressive production of a challenging and enigmatic play. With strong performances and clever direction, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking revival – and I highly recommend it.

London Classic Theatre’s production of No Man’s Land was on at Oldham Coliseum Theatre on 5th-7th September. It is currently touring nationally.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

My Year in Books 2019: August

I have to be honest here, August was not a good month. Sadly, my father-in-law passed away at the beginning of the month, after a battle with cancer. It's been very tough, and I haven't been in the mood for discovering new books or experimenting with random charity shop purchases as usual. All I've really wanted was to read a bit of comfy (but good) escapism, something I know and love, something I know I'll enjoy. And so... I turned to a series I've read a couple of times already (or, at least, I've read most of them a couple of times). Weirdly, I finished the last book in the series today, so my August post is entirely focused on the one series. But it is a very good series.

(In case you're interested, here are my posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July)

And here are my reviews for August...

Extraordinary People by Peter May (2006)


August was a tough month, and I decided I wanted a bit of comfort reading, rather than to discover something new. So, I turned to Peter May’s Enzo Macleod series. I’ve read the first five books a couple of times (though I’ve only read Cast Iron once, when it came out), so I knew what I was getting with these ones! And, obviously, I really like them. Extraordinary People is the introduction to May’s larger-than-life amateur sleuth, Enzo Macleod. He’s a half-Scottish, half-Italian former forensic scientist, who now lives in France and works as a university lecturer. He’s also got Waardenburg syndrome (giving him a distinctive white stripe in his hair and odd-coloured eyes), two daughters (Kirsty, with his estranged ex-wife in Scotland, and Sophie, with his deceased French partner), a Citroen 2CV and a penchant for playing blues on the guitar. In so many ways, Enzo shouldn’t work as a character – he’s too self-consciously ‘cool’ (or, at least, what a middle-aged man might think is cool!), and he’s too good at everything (he spends most of his time embarrassing French police officers with his insights into cold cases) – but he does. I put that down to May’s excellent writing. It’s just weirdly easy to get hooked on Enzo and his rag-tag gang of assistants. Extraordinary People sees Enzo attempting to win a bet by solving one of France’s most notorious unsolved murders. It’s great cold case fun, complete with cryptic clues left with body parts and a high-octane finale.

The Critic by Peter May (2007)


Since I’m definitely going to be rereading the entire series of Enzo books, these reviews aren’t going to be as separate as usual… they’ll probably just flow into one long review in the end. Extraordinary People introduced Enzo Macleod and his quirky band of helpers: daughter Sophie and her muscle-bound (but surprisingly knowledgeable) boyfriend Bertrand, student Nicole (who is, apparently, a whizz on computers, though really this just means she’s better on c.2007 Google than her professor), impossibly-French journalist Roger Raffin, who isn’t really a ‘helper’ but rather the author of the book of famous unsolved cases that has sparked Enzo’s quest, and psychologist Charlotte, Raffin’s ex and Enzo’s sort-of current squeeze. The Critic sees the gang investigating the murder of famous wine critic Gil Petty, whose body was grotesquely displayed in a vineyard in Gaillac, after having apparently been pickled in wine for a year. There’s a lot to like about this one, not least the very informative descriptions of wine production and tasting. May strikes a good (and very entertaining balance) between developing the ongoing saga of the main characters’ private lives – will Enzo and Charlotte make a proper go of it? will Enzo reconcile with Kirsty? will poor Nicole be able to continue at university? is there any limit to Bertrand’s hidden depths? – with puzzling, and rather old-school, mysteries to be solved. While there’s plenty of angst in the characters’ lives, there are also a healthy number of clues to the murder for the reader to ponder.

Blacklight Blue by Peter May (2008)


Blacklight Blue sees Enzo tackling the third of Raffin’s famous unsolved murders… though he doesn’t actually know he is until part way through the story. The book begins with some pretty dramatic stuff… Kirsty’s best friend is killed in an explosion, and it looks like Kirsty herself was the target. Bertrand’s gym is burnt to the ground, and all the signs suggest arson. And Enzo gets a diagnosis of terminal leukaemia. Is this the end for Enzo and the gang? Well… obviously not, but it is a sign that someone is trying to do them some serious damage. And when Enzo is framed for murder, he gets a clue that suggests who might be behind the attacks. Blacklight Blue has an interesting narrative technique in that the story of the investigation is intercut with flashback chapters told from (we presume) the killer’s perspective, so that the reader is acquainted with some information ahead of the main characters. May handles this well, as although we get the information, it’s not always immediately possible to fit it all together, so there’s still a puzzle to be solved. The series has hit its stride now, so there are some series-long strands that are picked up, but not resolved, in this one. As well as the individual cases from Raffin’s book, it seems that Enzo is facing a bigger challenge that lingers in the background. I’m really enjoying rereading these ones – they’re really fun ensemble stories with cerebral mysteries and puzzles to be solved.

Freeze Frame by Peter May (2010)


Freeze Frame breaks out of the mould of the rest of the series, which is fair enough (nice to have a bit of variety). However, I think it’s probably my least favourite as a result. The big change is that, for the most part, Enzo is flying solo in this one. Aside from a short visit from Charlotte, the rest of the gang are absent throughout Freeze Frame, which is a shame. Enzo travels to Brittany to investigate the murder of Adam Killian, the next case from Raffin’s book. Before he died, Killian asked his daughter-in-law Jane to ensure that no one touched his study until his son Peter had a chance to find the message he’d left. Unfortunately, Peter died before he could get to the study, and so Jane has simply preserved the room, hoping that one day someone will be able to find and decipher whatever it is Killian has left behind. Like Blacklight Blue, Freeze Frame includes chapters (at the beginning this time) from the perspective of other characters. Unlike the previous book, these go into quite some detail about the events leading up to the murder. This is also slightly disappointing, as I feel it gives just that little bit too much away, and the puzzle is somewhat less cryptic as a result. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun read. Charlotte’s appearance is a little ominous – she has unsettling news for Enzo and behaves in quite an unfriendly (and unfair) way. Their story’s not over yet…

Blowback by Peter May (2011)


Blowback begins in a similar way to Freeze Frame – Enzo’s on his own for this case. He’s investigating Raffin’s fifth case, the murder of 3* Michelin chef Marc Fraysse seven years earlier. The Critic gave May chance to indulge in some meticulous descriptions of wine; Blowback sees the same treatment dished out (no pun intended) to haute cuisine (although, to be fair, this is often paired with descriptions of the wine that accompanies it). Enzo travels to the victim’s famous restaurant in Puy-de-Dôme to reopen the case, which originally had precisely zero suspects. As I say, he’s initially flying solo, but he soon makes friends with the (unusually) helpful local gendarme, Dominique. I’m not going to give any spoilers, but some other members of the gang do make an appearance. Blowback is notable, perhaps, for having the strongest identification of Enzo with a victim. He really feels a connection with this one, for reasons that become clear in the first half of the book (readers may be surprised). Interestingly, May decides to drop the technique of interspersing chapter from the killer’s POV (which were used in the last two books), in favour of a glimpse into the mind of the victim. I like this – it lends the book a slightly different feel to the others. Enzo is still too cool for school in this one – and continues to be (slightly bafflingly) irresistible to women – but a bit of unexpected backstory gives some depth to this. On to the last one…

Cast Iron by Peter May (2017)


There was a bit of a wait for the last Enzo book – it was published six years after the fifth one – and I (like a lot of fans) was initially disappointed to find that the series would end after six, not seven, books. After all, Enzo is supposed to be investigating the seven notorious cases in Raffin’s book. I first read Cast Iron shortly after it was published, and I remembered it being a pretty decent finale to the series. Now that I’ve reread it, I take that assessment back: Cast Iron is an excellent finale to the series! Enzo’s taking on the sixth case – the murder of a young woman from Bordeaux called Lucie Martin – and the gang’s properly back together. Not only that, but a character who hasn’t been seen since The Critic also has a part to play. Cast Iron draws together loose ends dangling from the other books – especially Blacklight Blue (which ended with a pretty hefty unanswered question) – but also turns the individual cases into a series proper with some big reveals. Yes, there’s a little bit of a cheat with the introduction of a previously unmentioned plot point (no spoilers!), but I’m inclined to let it off with this. There’s some genuine (and upsetting) peril for a couple of characters, a rather cinematic climax, and some personal revelations for Enzo. All in all, a great way to wrap up the Enzo Files. I’m just a bit sad the series is finished, to be honest.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Clayton Hall Dark Fiction Writing Course


Fancy the opportunity to develop your creative writing in atmospheric, inspirational and unique setting of Clayton Hall (once home to Humphrey Chetham)? One of Manchester’s hidden heritage gems is offering a six-week dark fiction writing course… with me (the Hall’s writer-in-residence)!

Reasons you should consider this course? (1) Clayton Hall is an unusual and evocative location, easily accessible on the Metrolink. (2) In addition to the workshop sessions, we’ll also be having a reading and performance night… just in time for Halloween! (3) We have a guest workshop by the absolutely amazing Rosie Garland as part of the course!

Find the course on Facebook or Eventbrite… or keeping reading for more info…


Writer-in-residence Hannah Kate leads a six-part weekly writing course (with performance night) in the unique and evocative setting of Clayton Hall. Learn techniques for creating atmospheric and evocative writing, workshop your ideas, and share your work in a friendly and supportive environment. This course also includes a guest workshop from Manchester author Rosie Garland, and an optional extra workshop at another heritage site in Manchester.

Course outline:
Wed 18 Sep (7-9pm): Welcome to Clayton Hall and Writing Dark Fiction
Wed 25 Sep (7-9pm): Ghosts of Manchester, pt. 1
Wed 2 Oct (7-9pm): Guest workshop by Rosie Garland
Wed 9 Oct (7-9pm): Darkly Descriptive Writing
Wed 16 Oct (7-9pm): Ghosts of Manchester, pt. 2
Wed 23 Oct (7-9pm): Creating Character and Writing Dialogue

Reading and Performance Night:
Wed 30 Oct (7-9pm): A chance to read work produced on the course in the atmospheric setting of Clayton Hall

Optional Extra Workshop:
Sat 19 Oct (am): Additional ‘on-site’ workshop delivered at another Manchester heritage site (tbc)

Hannah Kate is writer-in-residence at Clayton Hall. Hannah is a North Manchester-based poet, short story writer and editor, and she presents a weekly literature show on North Manchester FM. Hannah has run numerous creative sessions for organizations including Commonword, Oldham Coliseum and Write Like a Grrrl, and has delivered workshops a number of heritage sites and museums, including the V&A and Manchester Museum.

Rosie Garland is a poet, writer and performance artist. She is the author of The Palace of Curiosities, Vixen and The Night Brother, as well as a number of poetry collections and short fiction. Rosie is currently writer-in-residence at the John Rylands Library.

Book your place on the course by clicking here or using the form below:

Thursday, 15 August 2019

The History of Crumpsall Park - an illustrated talk

On Wednesday 21st August, I'll be giving a talk with Tricia Neal on the history of Crumpsall Park on Ash Tree Road in North Manchester, for the Friends of Crumpsall Park.

Crumpsall Park was opened by Manchester Corporation in 1899 (it's 120 years old this summer!) as an urban green space at the edge of the expanding city. At this event, we'll be talking about what came before the Corporation park - who lived there? what was the surrounding area like? how did it come to be bought by the Corporation? But we'll also be sharing pictures and stories about the last 120 years, including some fantastic old postcards of the park.

Expect businessmen, spiders, an odd story about John Dalton, a bit of mythbusting... and lots more!

It's a free event (though it would be good if you could let us know you're coming via Facebook), at the Visitors Centre in Crumpsall Park, 7-9pm on Wednesday 21st August.


Sunday, 11 August 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: Mournful Loch Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 14th April 2017
Platform: PC


This is a slightly delayed review. I actually played this game last month, but I was tied up with GM Fringe theatre reviews and some other commitments so I wasn’t able to post this right away. I’m also aware that I said in my last game review that I was taking a break from the Phantasmat series, and that my next post would be a Poirot Project one… oops… neither of those things were true! Sorry!

My last game review was for Phantasmat: Behind the Mask, and I decided just to continue my play through the series. I was a little confused to discover that the next two titles were unavailable: Phantasmat: Town of Lost Hope and Phantasmat: Reign of Shadows were removed from the Big Fish Games catalogue earlier this year (not sure why). So, the next available game in the series was Phantasmat: Mournful Loch, which was developed (as all the instalments since The Endless Night have been) by Eipix Games.

Unfortunately, Mournful Loch feels a bit phoned-in. I’m not sure what the removed instalments would have added to the series, but playing Mournful Loch immediately after Behind the Mask didn’t really work for me. There were some notable similarities between the two stories, which only served to highlight the weakness in the later game’s storyline.

You play as an archaeologist/researcher who is setting out to explore Logan Castle in Scotland and hoping to discover a lost ancient artefact. The castle was the site of a historical (in the vaguest sense) massacre, and you believe something valuable was lost as a result. When the boat you’re in crashes (naturally!), you have to navigate your way through the creepy castle, past malevolent ghosts, and through inexplicably intricate locks and puzzle systems to find… whatever it is you’re meant to find.

And that’s the main problem with Mournful Loch. There’s no real sense of purpose or objective. The backstory as to why you’ve arrived at the castle is pretty sketchy, and the ‘history’ of the castle is vague, inconsistent and – at times – so historically suspect that it’s bad even by HOPA standards. As I say, there are similarities between this story and the one in Behind the Mask: you are faced with a series of malevolent ghosts, dealing with and dispatching one after another (I described this in my last review as being the closest a HOPA comes to having an ‘end of level boss’). The problem with Mournful Loch is that there aren’t really any backstories or explanations for the ghosts – who are they? why are they malevolent? what has this got to do with the artefact? what the hell is the artefact anyway? how many more times will the word ‘artefact’ be used? The game didn’t really answer any of these questions, and so what we’re left with is a paint-by-numbers storyline where puzzles have to be solved, baddies dispatched and objects restored, simply because this is a HOPA and that’s what happens.


Design-wise, this is very much of the standard I’ve come to expect from Eipix. Backgrounds and cutscenes are beautifully illustrated, with stylish detail and smooth animations where necessary. The colour palette tends towards blues and greys in this one, but that seems to fit with the ‘eldritch-esque’ feel to the overall story. There was much less sense of NPCs altering and ‘descending’ into evil – a detail that has characterized the previous instalments of the series – but this also meant that there was none of the cartoonish ‘monster’ illustrations that marred the design of Behind the Mask.

Soundtrack and sound effects were also as you might expect from a HOPA by this developer. Overall, though, there was little innovation or surprise in the game design. I have no real criticisms, but also no specific praise. Again, this game feels a bit phoned-in. It’s competently created, but a little bit mundane.

And this comes through in the gameplay as well, which is very much as expected. It’s point, click, move between scenes, pick up items for the inventory, use items from the inventory, complete mini-games, complete HOGs. There is a bit of back-and-forth between rooms (which I don’t mind), and one short cut that you discover part way through to cut down on this (also something I don’t mind, as it made sense within the game’s geography). Most of the inventory items were used in a logical way, and the plus-items (ones where you find something and then have to fix it, or locate additional parts for it to be usable) are pretty straightforward.

To be honest, the gameplay is also a bit mundane in this one. The HOGs (which can be switched for Match-3) and mini-games are very easy. The progression through the game is also easy (though the bonus chapter suffers from too much confusion about objectives and next steps). The game has a Custom difficulty option – yay! – so I was playing with longer recharge times on Hint and Skip, minimal sparkles, minimal black bar instructions, and no tutorial. I didn’t have to use Hint much at all during the main game, though I found I had to use it (and the jump map) in the bonus chapter, but more on that below. Generally speaking, there’s just a lack of challenge with this one.


The game does have some NPCs, but there’s much less interaction with these than in previous instalments. The interactions (and cutscenes) with the malevolent ghosts are limited, which means that we don’t get much of a sense of them as characters. There is some more sustained interaction with the sinister Boat Man (who originally brings you to Logan Castle), but admittedly this is marred by some slightly dodgy voice acting (an accent that’s meant to be Scottish sounds much more Northern Irish). Outside of this, though, there’s very little characterization going on in Mournful Loch. Even in the highlighted word puzzles, which are often used for exposition and backstory, the information that’s revealed is very limited.


I played the CE version of the game, so there was some bonus content. The main attraction – as always – was the bonus chapter, but this was a bit of a disappointment. It wasn’t completely clear whether this chapter is a prequel or a sequel (I think it was the latter), or how it related to the events of the main game. In the end, it mostly served as some additional gameplay (using some of the scenes from the main game, and a couple of new ones), rather than a development of the storyline.

In addition to the bonus chapter, the CE has all the usual extra features, including achievements, replays on HOGs and Match-3, collectibles and morphing objects, soundtrack and wallpapers.

So, all-in-all, Mournful Loch was a bit of a disappointment. It’s competently made, but with nothing special or surprising about it. The visual design meets Eipix’s usual high standard, but the game is let down by a rather confused and unexciting storyline. I don’t have any major criticisms of the mechanics here, but I like HOPAs that integrate these into a story I can (at least temporarily) buy into. I probably will try another Phantasmat game, but maybe I need a break and another series for a while!