MR James, bless him, appears to have been able to see the downright shudderworthy in almost anything. In The Ash Tree, he took a few salient facts about ash trees and turned them into a story that’ll have your socks crawling off and hiding behind the sofa. This new adaptation of his premise by Matthew Holness for Bafflegab Productions does something a bit clever with the original and brings it right up to date for 21st century listeners.
The thing about the new version is that there’s no escape from it anywhere. Some horror fans like taut psychological thrillers of people tearing their relationships to bits in the spaces between words unsaid. Other horror fans love old-fashioned “restless villagers with disturbing secrets” mysteries. And yet further horror fans – the really, truly sick horror fans – like a good old dose of critter-horror, with scuttly things and chittery things and hordes and hordes of tiny things intent on darkness and skittering and death. There’s no escape for any of you in The Ash Tree – it manages to combine all three kinds of horror into what has been boiled down to a mostly three-handed play over a very tight hour, with three absolutely stunning lead actors playing off each other to absolutely leave you nowhere to go, to keep you pinned in the middle of a vortex of sticky silences, unknown histories and physical horror.
In short, it’s a belter. But then it would be – it’s Bafflegab. The company has a positively supernatural knack of picking projects that can enhance its reputation, filling them with nuanced acting talent, and scaring the living daylights out of listeners.
Essentially it’s a story of the past overwhelming the present, but there’s more going on beneath a neurotic, conversationally paralysed surface too. When her parents die, Rachel Fell (played with a good deal of independent fire by Amanda Abbington) invests her inheritance in buying back her family’s old manor house, Castringham Hall. She and her partner Simon (delivered with an almost visible stoop of well-meaning submission by Reese Shearsmith) hire local historian and parish council busybody Mr Crome (given a richness and cork-tasting vowels by John Sessions) to find out more about the history of the house so it can be – in the words of almost every property show – “sympathetically restored.” Unfortunately, what he discovers is a history of cruelty in the family, in particular the unlawful, unethical actions of Sir Matthew Fell, who also succumbed to an unusual and untimely death in the house, in a bedroom just next to a big ash tree…
The ash tree, or its descendent, is still outside the master bedroom to this day, blocking the light. When it seems there might be a medieval body underneath an outbuilding where Rachel’s determined to build an office, local tensions bubble and are communicated through Crome, the past and the present seeming to scratchily overlap along the nerves of everyone concerned, scraping the skin off problems in the relationship between Rachel and Simon. As more and more information comes to light about Sir Matthew’s actions, a supposed sickness attached to the family, and Rachel’s increasing instability, you can feel the walls closing in around the couple, and ultimately around Rachel, leading to a conclusion guaranteed to make you squirm and shudder and go “What the actual hell did I just listen to?”
It’s a punchy, poignant melding of sociological and psychological stress factors with ye olde ghost story and nature-horror that only lifts Bafflegab’s reputations up to new heights, and will leave you with an unscratchable itch, an unshakeable shudder for days after you listen to it. Go on, scare yourself witless.
The Ash Tree will be released on CD and download on December 6th 2019, from Bafflegab Productions.