It’s a big Hurrah! from me for the return of live entertainment to the Royal and Derngate, ever since it was discovered that they were one of those theatres with aerated concrete (also known as The RAAC Pack), and have thus been closed since the beginning of September. The Derngate is due to open on the 24th for NMTC’s Kinky Boots; no word as yet on the Underground, but my fingers remain crossed. But the delightful old Royal theatre reopened last night with Original Theatre’s touring production of Torben Betts’ Murder in the Dark. Congratulations to the R&D for opening the building sufficiently to allow the Royal to be used; they’re temporarily using the old upstairs Crown bar, so my advice if you want a drink too is not to arrive too late as it does make the whole process a little bit slower. But it’s a spectacular achievement to get the place open and functional under such difficult circumstances, and all the front of house were welcoming and helpful as always.
Murder in the Dark? Would that be a party game, where you have to work out who killed what over drinks and canapés? Or perhaps a whodunit, where the lights go out, there’s a scream, and when they turn them back on, Doctor X has killed Professor Thingy with the lead piping. As it turns out, neither. Torben Betts has created a comedy thriller-cum-horror-cum-ghost-cum-what the hell is going on here kind of show. Danny, once a successful pop star, now down on his uppers, and his girlfriend Sarah have arrived at Mrs Bateman’s exceedingly remote farm. Unintentionally, that is; it’s New Year’s Eve and he’s had an accident in the car – probably had too much to drink – and she’s kindly going to put them up for the night. His brother, son and ex-wife are also with them. There’s clearly a problem with the fuse box, as the electricity keeps coming on and going off. And that’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot – you have to come and see it for yourself to discover what happens next!
The cast are uniformly excellent, with a terrific central performance from Tom Chambers as Danny, a perpetually tormented soul who’s afraid of the dark, afraid of the farm dog – in fact, he’s afraid of almost everything. He’s matched by a funny and frequently scary performance from Susie Blake as Mrs Bateman, a character who ought to be a simple, kindly old lady – but you wouldn’t trust her an inch. There’s a strong performance from Jonny Green as Danny’s son Jake, bitterly resentful of being ignored by his father all through his childhood. Laura White is excellent as Sarah, also ignored by Danny and desperate for WiFi, Owen Oakeshott is great as Danny’s angry but loving brother William and Rebecca Charles is also very good as ex-wife Rebecca, full of commonsense and practicality, and keeping her own secrets to herself.
There’s a request in the programme that audiences keep the secrets of the story to themselves so that future audiences can enjoy the show. Absolutely, wholeheartedly agree with that. It’s also a blessing; because if you were to ask me what the secrets of the story are, I’m not sure I could tell you with any true conviction — there are so many! It’s a complex set-up, and the complexities don’t get fully revealed until the last few minutes, so that’s hugely rewarding. I’m not 100% convinced that every single aspect of the story tallies up; in fact, I’m sure they don’t. But it’s an almost unique aspect of this play that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t all make sense – it’s almost a desirable bonus!
What does matter is that it’s an exciting, suspenseful story, with huge dollops of spookiness, presented on an eerie set, with scary sound and light effects, and some nice comic touches. It’s also completely unpredictable; when you think you’ve got it sussed, something else happens to prove you wrong, so it’s a constant guessing game where the author is always at least one step ahead of the audience. I also enjoyed a couple of obvious nods to at least two other plays, both of which will visit the Derngate auditorium early next year – I’ll say no more. Murder in the Dark plays at the Royal until Saturday 21st October and then continues its tour to High Wycombe, Birmingham, Derby, Salford, Southend, Cambridge, Malvern, Cardiff, Cheltenham, New Brighton, Richmond and Glasgow.
Production photos by Pamela Raith