February 15th, 2013


And then the Dark

We had front row seats for this new production and the set design had a raised floor so our noses were level with the actors' feet. This was not ideal but it only mildly diminished our appreciation of the show. The set is a sitting room with a large sofa, two chairs, a large footstool, an occasional table, a sideboard, a fireplace, a mantel clock, a walk-in cupboard, and a single door to the staircase. The large french windows are covered with drawn blue velvet curtains, 'like a crematorium' as one character observes. On every surface there are small stacks of books; most of them are faded with multiple paper bookmarks and no dustjackets. Indeed the only dustjacket is on the book about George III being read by the main protagonist as the audience arrives before the show. The painted walls of the room are covered in the voids where pictures have been removed leaving only their sooty shillouettes. Everything about the room is redolent of decay and it becomes apparent that the only new items are the many bottles of J&B whisky in the sideboard. Edward has been living the life of a hermitic sot since the night exactly seven years ago when his wife and son disappreared and the room above the sitting room was destroyed by fire. Edward believes that they are still alive but it is clear that everyone else thinks that his family died in the blaze.

Into this febrile world strides the man who manages the family business. He is not of the family; he is of the business. He is an assured man; a confident man; a powerful man; a complete contrast to the agoraphobic twitching Edward. Arnold has come because the sister of Edward's wife is arriving and he expects her to want the missing sister declared dead so that her share of the business can be bequeathed. When the sister-in-law arrives, it transpires that the businessman is right. But there is much more going on: Ruth, the sister-in-law, is in the late stages of terminal leukaemia and she has arrived with the doctor that is her recent husband and is a much younger man. Ruth and her husband, William, try to persuade Edward to sign a waiver that they have prepared. He resists and, when they start to blackmail him, he persuades Arnold to step out to the local pub for an hour. When Ruth is taken acutely ill, Edward and William take her upstairs and William goes to the hospital. While he is away Ruth's teenage son, Theo, arrives and, from that point onwards, everything strats to unravel.

The script plays with many of the cinematic tropes of suspense: passing trains throw eerie shadows, rain beats against the french windows, and the mantel clock ticks loudly. There are lighter notes, too: Edward's obssessive rituals with the whisky, his display of all the whisky (and nothing else) in the sideboard when someone asks for soda as a mixer, and his determination that the books shall prevent anyone else from taking a seat. These all combine to yield a claustrophobic ambience.

The suspenseful ambience is smashed, however, by the arrival of broad comic police towards the end of the show. Played for laughs, the policemen are a jarring note that derails the production. They also introduce inconsistencies: How does detective Cowley know of the existence of the waiver? Why do the police levae without taking the statement that they request? Indeed, how can they know so much and why are they so cavalier?

The Wolsey had promoted this show as something very scary but the direction undermined this. A suspenseful audience may titter nervously but full laughter shows that the performance has missed the mark. And that is a shame because the script, the set, the effects, and the performances deserved better. All the performances were strong but they were of disparate styles: Paul Ansdell (Edward) had the clear diction of many parlour crime plays, Jonny Weldon (Theo) was brilliantly natural in his manner and delivery, and Graham Kent (Cowley) was a very funny comic policeman. But they should not have shared a stage. Peter Rowe, the director, could have created a strong production in any one of these three styles but mixing them up undermined the premise.

Sadly, it is the nature of mysteries that they do not bear repeat viewing so even if a director were to fix the problems with this production, I would not wish to see the result. This is a shame because there is a strong script here; my disappointments came too late to substantially diminish my pleasure in the show. It is worth seeing but do not expect to be scared.
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