THEATRE REVIEW: Unnatural Cycles: A Ghost Story at Sheffield Playhouse

THE HOLOCAUST casts a heavy shadow over Avital Raz’s extraordinary piece of storytelling.

“I want to tell you a ghost story – but it is also a true story,” she says at the start, setting the scene for an hour long’s immersion into her life and memories.

Raz pours out salt to create a circle on the stage floor in what reminded me of horror films to ward off evil spirits.

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An old house, strange neighbours, a secret passage and a howling dog, all add to the atmosphere, intermingled with the loss of a baby, strained relationships, the existence or otherwise of God — and the joys of apple pie.

Relentlessly bleak, yet totally compelling, Raj uses film and music to create a dreamlike, other-wordly space.

The unnatural cycle of death is explored through the generations.

In fact, the inspiration for it came in a dream the Jerusalem-born vocal artist and theatre-maker had about her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who she interviewed on tape before she died.

Her grandmother’s words provide dialogue.

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“We tried to make a better life,” she says, a reference, we learn in the after-show talk, to her marriage to an American soldier following the end of the Second World War.

A recurring melody, a song about making apple pies, hauntingly sears into thoughts and feelings.

A cast aside teddy bear is disembowelled of its stuffing by disembodied hands in one clip.

Mechanised fruit pie production methods provide the background in another.

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And then there’s the chilling images of a visit by a Nazi commander to a wartime factory — a factory like the one in Poland where her Jewish grandmother worked 16 hours a day in terrible conditions, learning to recite Catholic prayers to avoid capture and the Auschwitz death camp.

The ghosts here are a stark, increasingly relevant, presence in today’s world of wars and refugees.

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