The House of Influenza is a one woman meta-comedic horror show, in turns frivolous and reflective. Written by Durham revue alumnus Andrew Shires and performed by Durham revue alumna Lily Edwards it revels in engaging in every horror story trope and then tearing these down for the audience’s amusement and contemplation.
The play concerns an initial frame story of a girl obsessed by horror confronted with a real zombie apocalypse, to distract herself from her impending doom she begins to write a humorous parody of the horror genre. This centers upon the misadventures of 5 school friends, each a hysterical caricature. The staging is simple yet effective, when telling the ‘true’ story of the zombie apocalypse Edwards’ character is in darkness, yet when she tells her own fictional parody she is lit up – the character engineers this staging into existence, reflecting further the ‘meta’ nature of the play.
This effect continues, coming full circle at the play’s conclusion. In the instances the stage is lit up the comedic nature of Edwards’ performance cannot be overstated. She embodies the physicality of a collection of characters, from the nerd Danny- whom, to illustrate this point, shouts ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ at strange intervals, to the creepy housekeeper Miss Shinfeather. To portray these characters she literally races across the stage to intimate the transition from one character to another, often narrating their actions in the third person before performing them in a knowing way, revelling in the irreverence of the tale and her own self-awareness of the horror tropes she is sullying. Due to the lighting, her shadow looms large, cast multiple times across the walls. This staging cleverly reflects her embodiment of numerous characters and her elevated presence on stage as the only performer. The character stands in the middle of three black screens, a back wall but also 2 screens that face outwards, so that the audience is the fourth wall of a trapezoid-like shape. The openness of this staging compliments the inclusivity of her narrative and her proximity to, and interaction with, the audience.
What permeates Edwards’ performance is likeability- even when she makes a mistake it could plausibly be part of the script, her humour and full expression of the physicality of each of the characters she plays are designed to endear her to the audience who were laughing nearly constantly. There is an intrinsic sense of her character as the everywoman. The play has numerous nods to the fact it is contemporary. However, the character herself has no defining personal characteristics beyond this aside from a love of horror. Edwards’ plain black outfit illustrates this concept of anonymity, as does the minimal tech, with a complete lack of props and very few sound effects aside from the swelling music at the play’s conclusion- one could have questioned whether more sound effects might have enriched the performance. During the outer narrative in which the apocalypse is nearly upon her, Edwards’ character uses the second person constantly to reflect what seems to be her own story: ‘you call your mum and dad’, ‘you wait’ etc. This is startling and seemingly reflects the fact that the central character could be any one of us and our inclusion within the narrative, able to transpose ourselves upon the character.
For all the absurdism of the parody at the centre of The House of Influenza, what was arguably most interesting was what occurred on the fringes and perhaps the framing narrative should have formed a larger proportion of the play. The exploration of the idea of ‘true horror’ being in isolation and waiting, consolation to be found in the creation of art is a fascinating one. In this way, the show can be considered not merely a meditation on horror, but on the power and function of art itself. A poignant exploration of the idea of life imitating art. The production and all involved should be highly commended.
The House of Influenza continues performances: July 27 at the Bread and Roses Theatre, London and August 1-25, The Sanctum at Just The Tonic, Edinburgh Fringe Festival