Big Finish wraps up their 2021 Torchwood monthly range with a decidedly festive piece of Welsh horror as Ianto Jones encounters the legendary Mari Lwyd in a remote Welsh village at Christmas. It’s another strong character-centric piece for Gareth David-Lloyd, coming off the superb The Great Sontaran War (check out our review here) and my personal favourite, Coffee, from last January.
It’s also the first Big Finish script from writers Stewart Pringle and Lauren Mooney and they certainly hit it out of the park. Big Finish‘s monthly Torchwood releases are usually more intimate affairs, making wonderful use of the rich Welsh setting and they certainly tap into that concept with a core Torchwood team member – in this instance Ianto – and surround them with rich supporting characters. Rhian Morgan’s Mrs Watkins is a larger than life widow with a broad Welsh accent, still grieving the loss of her husband, who finds a connection with David-Lloyd’s equally lonely Ianto, while Sion Daniel Young’s Daniel is a somewhat empty-headed local handyman, who becomes emboiled in the terror unfolding. Both play off Ianto well, making the most of this delightful script.
As for the Mari Lwyd; the best way to describe it is some kind of Welsh Krampus, though that comparison is fleeting. It is a creepy supernatural Christmas ghost story, brought to life in the most chilling way possible. Director Lisa Bowerman brings plenty of taught direction to the scenes where the creature rattles at the door, trying to get into the house and the moments when it is really unleashed are really unsettling to listen to. Add in the dead, brought back to life thanks to the supernatural abilities of the Mari Lwyd, and this is Christmas horror at its finest.
But this is more than just a Christmas ghost story. The story also taps into the themes of loneliness, depression and isolation that so many feel at Christmas. The Ianto of Torchwood series one and two was often the outsider and this is brought to the fore here as he chooses to hold up alone in a rental cottage in the middle of nowhere. Believing that there is no one that will miss him, Ianto finds something of an unwilling bond with Morgan’s Mrs Watkins. While her primary purpose in the story is to provide the context behind the legend of the Mari Lwyd, as The Grey Mare unfolds, she finds courage and a connection with Ianto that plays out into a incredibly bittersweet final scene.
David-Lloyd has been playing Ianto Jones for years now and his performance here is second nature, capturing the fish out of water nature of a character who finds himself facing something so profoundly weird and unexplainable. But there’s courage and conviction in his performance too; these monthly releases allow for a bit of character spotlight and The Grey Mare gives him plenty of agency as events unfold.
The Grey Mare has some sweet, often sad character beats and plenty of atmosphere and tension. There are moments that are genuinely unsettling and the Mari Lwyd is such a vivid piece of horror, it’s sure to have you looking up the Welsh legend online once the story has ended.
Torchwood: The Grey Mare is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 28th February 2022.
Writers Stewart Pringle and Lauren Mooney talk the love of Christmas ghost stories and folklore and how they could be adapted for Torchwood, touching upon rural communities and the ancient traditions and stories they own and plunging a very contemporary character like Ianto into a situation of something very ancient and supernatural.
There’s also some great insights from the cast. Gareth David-Lloyd talks falling in love with the script. Sion Daniel Young (Daniel) explores the idea of his youthful idiot appearing in every story, while Rhian Morgan talks Annie’s journey across the story and how she is released from her darkness and grief.
“Listen. Mari Lwyd. White as moonlight. Rattle-bagged and broken backed. Steed of winter who the pale men carry.
“Who are those that squire you? Slow and ceaseless, yard by yard, house by house, and door by door.”
The Mari Lwyd is a fine Welsh Christmas Tradition – the skeleton of a horse roams the streets, begging to be let in for food and warmth. Once she knocks, only the most cunning can send her away.
Ianto Jones has come to a remote village for a quiet Christmas. But the Mari Lwyd has come knocking. And she’s real.
Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones)
Rhian Morgan (Mrs Watkins)
Duncan Wisbey (Jim)
Sion Daniel Young (Daniel)
Written by Stewart Pringle, Lauren Mooney
Senior Producer David Richardson
Additional themes by Ben Foster
Cover Art by Sean Longmore
Director Lisa Bowerman
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Music by Blair Mowat
Producer James Goss
Script Editor James Goss
Sound Design by Richard Fox @ FoxYason Studios
Theme Music by Murray Gold