Ever been really scared? Not hiding-behind-the-sofa-when-the-daleks-turn-up scared, but really scared? Only once for me - on a small boat going out into the swell off Iona in The Hebrides. The sea was not picturesque, was not lapping and lulling one to sleep, not offering welcome respite from Mediterranean heat. It was a brutal, chaotic, heavy black beast lashing at me, filling every sense with its sting, it was a primeval existential threat. Two double Macallans once back on dry land calmed my nerves, if not the waters.
Drowning Rock (at Camden People's Theatre until 4 November) is set in a Cornish lighthouse perched above waters that slowly eat into the soul of Hawker (Andrew O'Donoghue), a Londoner with Cornish roots, researching a book about his grandfather, a World War II diver. With him are Roper (John Gregor), an old hand wise to the ways of the waters and his sidekick Jim (JP Lord), a mute lad who never seems fully one of the party. Told in flashback, Hawker learns of his father's visits to Cornwall, his dead mother's secret and his own future.
Enhanced by photographs and a soundscape that does enough to drown out the traffic noise outside, Drowning Rock is a traditional horror tale (writer Matthew Wood draws on HP Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth") that unfurls over 100 minutes. Though horror, like a joke's punchline and one or two other pleasures, is best delayed as long as possible, that's quite a while to be in the company of three men, one of whom barely speaks. Though an interval would have shattered the tension with the buzz and brightness of smartphones being switched on, one can't help thinking 80 minutes would have been plenty to tell this tale.
There's a shock or two, but nothing to frighten the horses too much, in this slow-burn tale of a remote community's relationship with the dark vastness of the ocean.
"I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over."
Drowning Rock isn't merry and there's not much laughing, but, though diverting enough for Hallowe'en season, your sleep will still be quiet, your dreams sweet - unlike Hawker's.