Cleverly described as a "Homes Under the Hammer Horror", Gated Community tells the sinister stories of eight houses in Orchard Mews, performed through shadow puppetry using an overhead projector (OHP) – remember those? Handheld Arts are returning to Buxton for the first time since 2011's five-star show Paper Tom, and here, they combine fabulous attention to detail with nods and winks to classic horror movies.
It opens with a potted history stretching back to the 1880s, when a family moves from the East End of London to a large family house in Kent. An idyllic childhood is truncated by illness and war, and the house falls to ruin – before being redevelopmed into eight mews houses in a gated community. So exclusive.
The stories are reminiscent of Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit, in the sense that they're jam-packed with references. The Exercist tells of a horrible tabloid personality, Susie Hapkins, trying to get her chubby ghost in shape; PAL 9000 is a home organising system corrupted in an upgrade; and The Intruder is a hilarious mash-up of Misery and the Carpenters, where the joy is in the tiny details (the eyes moving in the intruder’s head, the representation of blurred vision, the false teeth dropping into a glass).
I expected more links between the opening story and the tales of the new houses, perhaps some continuing threads to explain the hauntings. The only thematic link was the contrast between the outdoorsy childhood of the Victorian family, and the recurring story of The Twins, whose overprotective mother comes to grief through advice she herself gave her young ones. This story uses no shadow puppetry, but clever soundtracks aid the performers (who were probably relieved to stand up from the OHP).
Occasionally, despite the dexterity of the performers, the very nature of the presentation can be a bit laboured – each joke overstaying its welcome just a little. There was also one mix-up with slides on the night I attended, but it was recovered just before the pause got too awkward. Overall, the craftsmanship that goes into creating the slides is marvellous, and the audience were charmed by the experience.
It's curious to see a production rely so heavily on a technology that has so recently become obsolete. My own memories of OHPs are all from boring lectures and presentations, at school and in work. Yet now it feels like a delightful period piece, a throwback to an earlier pre-digital age, and there's creativity in working with the limitations of an OHP when more modern forms of projection are available. What's more, the storytelling and attention to detail built into Gated Community transcend the vintage appeal of the technology.