Murder in the Dark

Torben Betts
Original Theatre, Trafalgar Theatre Productions and JAS Theatricals
The Lowry, Salford

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Murder in the Dark Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Murder in the Dark Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Murder in the Dark Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Murder in the Dark Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Murder in the Dark Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

It was a dark and stormy night—and that’s just the journey to and from the theatre.

Failed pop star Danny Sierra (Tom Chambers) has a number of demons. An alcoholic who has never acknowledged his son and has ignored the child’s mother whilst leaving his brother to care for the ailing mother both acknowledge was far from an ideal parent. However, when his inebriation causes a car crash on the way back from his mother’s funeral, Danny and his former wife and alienated son along with his estranged brother and trophy girlfriend become stranded in a close to derelict farmhouse, giving him little choice but to confront, and try and resolve, his problems.

Easier said than done, especially as Mrs Bateman (Susie Blake), the owner of the farmhouse where the family take refuge, has both a shady past and an unusual degree of prior knowledge about her reluctant guests. All that is before the lights begin to flicker and ghostly apparitions appear to some, but not all, of the dysfunctional family.

The context for Murder in the Dark—people stuck in an ominous situation which rapidly goes out of control—has been used (Misery) and indeed parodied (The Rocky Horror Show) many times. Rather than insult the audience by pretending they are not aware of this tradition, director Philip Franks gleefully produces a combination of a ride on a ghost train (complete with shock-horror scares) and a grim episode of the TV series Black Mirror. Franks does not hold back from disconcerting images of a possible spectral ballerina gilding across the stage, and the spectre who appears in the second act has a resemblance to the long-haired, vengeful ghosts from Japanese supernatural horror films.

The script by Torben Betts is stuffed full of red herrings and off-centre character development. Upon entering the ramshackle farmhouse, Danny Sierra finds a number of features which remind him of his traumatic childhood—the nursery rhyme hummed by an abusive babysitter and the song "Murder in the Dark" composed by his alienated brother both make an appearance. Act one includes a growing number of hints and scares culminating in a full Grand Guignol sensational conclusion, while act two has a creepier psychological tone.

The subtle way in which Simon Kenny’s farmhouse set changes, within seconds, from inside to outside gives the convincing impression the characters have dashed from house to yard. Features such as a fireplace becoming a menacing well add to the genuinely uneasy atmosphere, especially with Paul Pyant’s restrained lighting.

Tom Chambers and Susie Blake clearly enjoy chewing the scenery. Chambers digs deep into Danny Sierra’s insecurities and guilt and revels in the absence of any redeeming features in the character, who is far more interested in securing a drink than repairing the damage caused by his past actions and does not hesitate to ask about possible inheritance on the day of his mother’s funeral. Rather than the restrained menace of, say, housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, Susie Blake opts for the disturbingly unhinged approach of Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes, jumping from quoting Bible verses to suddenly making inappropriate sexual advances towards Danny Sierra.

Unlike 2:22 A Ghost Story (soon to return to The Lowry), which takes an analytical approach to the supernatural genre, Murder in the Dark is content to simply keep the audience guessing and jumping at scares to the very end.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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