Cuddles begins with a body laid out under a blanket in the center of the stage, wreathed in smoke and milky light. The body rises stiffly to a sitting position, and then recites a fairy tale about a king who wanted a son but instead got a "cuckoo monster" disguised as a girl, and how the horror of that child brought the kingdom to ruin.
It's a surprisingly poetic opener to a vampire story set in modern London. But Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble's current production of Cuddles is, underneath the psychological horror and claustrophobia of its telling, exactly that: surprisingly poetic. Director Joe Hanrahan and his two-woman cast (Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye) deliver a chilling story about desire, family and hunger that is at times bleakly funny, but is mostly just starkly terrifying.
Tibbetts is Eve, our narrator, who has never left her room in the house she shares with her sister, Tabby (Schwetye). She has just a bed, a game of Monopoly and an endless stream of fantasies about the outside world and its princes and demons, which she delivers in the sing-song voice of a young girl. Is she really that young, or has she been confined for so long that she's regressed mentally? When she becomes agitated, she hunches over and splays her fingers like claws, and despite enjoying jam sandwiches, she mostly hungers for blood. Much is made of Tabby's assurances that Eve can't die from a lack of blood — only a wooden stake to the heart, sunlight or decapitation. So Tabby cautiously doles out blood to keep Eve alive — and keep herself from succumbing to vampirism.
Tabby is Eve's keeper and her buffet. By day she runs their father's business empire with a ruthlessness as bloody-minded as Eve at dinnertime. But when Tabby returns home she wills herself to a softness that mirrors her sister's, and reluctantly allows Eve to suckle blood greedily from her wrist.
Tabby also fosters Eve's retreat to her dreamworld. At one point Eve imagines she's outside, where "there are people, and none of them want to kill me."
"Am I there?" asks Eve, but ominously gets no answer.
Their hermetic existence is threatened when Tabby assaults a charity worker in the street, and he offers to not sue her if she'll go on one date with him. Despite Tabby's status as the worst flirt in the world (her small talk includes facts about ducks raping each other and abortions), they hit it off and she contemplates letting him fully into her life. Eve sees an entirely different use for a man around the house.
Both Tibbetts and Schwetye bring a sense of barely controlled fury to their characters: Tibbetts for blood, Schwetye for happiness once she tastes it. These appetites put them at cross purposes, and bring about the ruin of their secret kingdom, just as in Eve's introductory fairy tale. But that's not what is so terrifying about Cuddles. The real horror comes from watching the sisters slowly change places. Eve becomes ruthless and vicious, and Tabby fosters happy dreams of a shared future. Well, that and the actual ending, which is as grim and cold as the middle of winter.
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