The Mystery of the Raddlesham Mumps review – fiendish verses and curses

Murray Lachlan Young is a born storyteller – even his name has a satisfying rhythm. Young’s sinister saga The Mystery of the Raddlesham Mumps has spawned a book, album and interactive game as well as this two-man touring show, designed for over-sevens and billed as expressly unsuitable for under-fives. So with some trepidation I arrive with six-year-old Hilda, who is still a little spooked from Halloween.

But Hilda is intrigued by Bek Palmer’s creepy set design with its crumbling columns, stuffed bear and mysterious tusk protruding through piles of junk. You can almost smell the mildew. At the edge of the stage is a discarded gargoyle, which provides a visual parallel for the hyper-expressive performer Joe Allen, who mugs for the audience while making a pot of tea. That Young then uses this gargoyle’s cuppa as a gargle is a subtle bit of wordplay in a show where no one has yet spoken a word and Hilda is already in stitches.

A forest of verse … The Mystery of the Raddlesham Mumps. Photograph: Mike Kwasniak

Gimlet of eye, ragged of trouser and stripy of sock, with his salt-and-pepper curls suggesting a coating of dust, Young seems to have been raised from the wreckage of the eponymous stately pile. The Raddlesham Mumps is “the seat of the Clumps” and this cursed ancestral home is inherited by seven-year-old Crispin de Quincy de Faversham Clumps on the death of his parents. His sole housemate is a 100-year-old butler who tells him about the mysterious deaths of his predecessors.

I’ve explained as much to Hilda before it begins and she expects one actor to play one role each. But it’s more multilayered than that and the style of storytelling is a bit disorientating for her. Young narrates the entire epic poem, playing several roles, while Allen stays silent, switching between acting out and reacting to the various twists and turns of the story. Some of his gestures underline the verse, others expand on it. That the performance we watch is engagingly interpreted in British Sign Language by Kate Labno adds another dimension to the storytelling.

The elaborately wrought verse, which at one point triumphantly rhymes hookah with verruca, is as soaked in atmosphere as the design and it all starts to resemble a fever dream as we are given thumbnail sketches of Crispin’s ancestors’ deaths. The details of a bell-tower suicide and an impalement fly over Hilda’s head; instead she laughs when Young howls like a hound and when Allen dances about portraying Crispin’s groovy 60s ancestor. This is the only character who really stands out in a too-swift procession of luckless Clumps, each of whom is introduced through projections that are partially obscured from view. I began to wish I was savouring the words on the page instead of finding myself lost in this forest of verse. Younger audiences may do well to read or listen to the story before seeing the show.

Nevertheless, Nina Hajiyianni’s production is driven along by the dynamism of the performers and by Arun Ghosh’s suspenseful music. Hilda gives it 10 out of 10: a “really hilarious” show. But what was it all about, I ask. “I don’t really know,” she says. “It was about laughing!”

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