Reviews | Written by Rich Cross 06/12/2019

THE ASH TREE

THE ASH TREE / WRITTEN BY: M R JAMES / ADAPTED BY: MATT HOLNESS / DIRECTOR: SIMON BARNARD / STARRING: AMANDA ABBINGTON, REECE SHEARSMITH, JOHN SESSIONS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW / WHERE TO BUY: BAFFLEGAB

Genre audio specialists Bafflegab have established a deserved reputation for delivering high-quality contemporary adaptations of some of M. R. James’ most celebrated ghost stories. This new full-cast presentation of James’ creepy arboreal tale The Ash Tree is invested with the same signature elements that have made the company’s previous releases so effective.

Matt Holness (best known for Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace) has crafted a spirited and thoroughly modern adaptation of one of James’ more elaborate (and somewhat arcane) stories. Resetting James' work in the present day (as Bafflegab did with the earlier The Conception of Terror audio collection) requires some significant retooling of James' once contemporary but now anachronistic cultural and social mores. The reworked result feels fully authentic, especially as Holness takes care to retain the sense that twenty-first century hubris can still become entangled with malevolent forces and dark misdeeds from the distant past.

After losing her parents, Rachel Fell invests her inheritance in the purchase of Castringham Hall, a striking but derelict Tudor house located in East Suffolk. Once the home of her distant ancestors, Rachel and her husband Simon intend to restore the house and its gardens. Local historian Mr Crome is brought on board to research the history of the Fells, and he unearths some unsettling records. These document the impact of the ‘Castringham sickness,’ a deadly malady that overwhelmed the Fell household in earlier times. Might the sickness be the result of a curse on the family, and what is the significance of the looming ash tree close to the main house? As the new residents’ restoration work alarms the locals, pressures build and tempers fray.

The mythology of James’ original story is quite complex, especially considering its brevity, but it’s been revised and honed to good effect here. John Sessions shines as the disconcerting and secretive local historian Crome. He’s someone who shares information about the backstory of the house only when that suits his agenda. Eloquent and reserved, Sessions captures the sense of menace hidden just beneath a surface that combines politeness and disdain in equal measure. Amanda Abbington is great too as the fragile and fractured Rachel. A woman at the end of her tether, she’s impulsive, short-tempered and reluctant to accept criticism. Unfortunately, she takes her self-destructive frustration out on those closest to her. Reece Shearsmith gives an appropriately understated performance as husband Simon, an everyman who considers himself long-suffering but who is refusing to deal with his own feelings of disappointment.

For all his brilliance, James was not an author well attuned to the complexities of human emotion. Refocusing matters, Holness’ script introduces a fraught dinner party as a means to surface long-standing relationship resentments. It's an intentionally excruciating and explosive sequence that ratchets up the tension and the sense of things falling apart. It also paves the way for what is a properly chilling finale. The Ash Tree is another first-rate M.R. James audio adaptation from the skilled creative team at Bafflegab, who currently set the enviable quality standard for this type of work.

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