TORBEN Betts first made his mark at a North Yorkshire theatre when Alan Ayckbourn talent-spotted the fledgling playwright and gave him a residency at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1999.
That year, the Scarborough theatre presented the premiere of his debut play, A Listening Heaven. Now, Betts’s new thriller, the ghost story Murder In The Dark, is heading to York Theatre Royal from September 19 to 23 on Original Theatre Company’s tour, directed by Philip Franks.
“Horror films have been my guilty pleasure since I was a morbid child,” says Philip, who was at the helm of Original Theatre’s touring production of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d at the Theatre Royal last October too.
“Now is the time to find out whether many years’ worth of jump scares and terrible nightmares can be put to good use. We’ll also see whether my more adult theory – that horror often puts its finger on what worries us most as a society at any given time – will also hold true.”
Betts’s setting is a modern-day New Year’s Eve, when a car crash on a lonely road brings famous but troubled singer Danny Sierra and his extended family to an isolated holiday cottage in rural England. From the moment they arrive, a sequence of inexplicable events begins to occur…and then the lights go out!
Susie Blake, Miss Marple in last year’s visit, will play farmer’s wife Mrs Bateman alongside 2008 Strictly Come Dancing champion, Top Hat leading man and Holby City, Waterloo Road and Father Brown star Tom Chambers as Danny, Rebecca Charles as Rebecca, Jonny Green as Jake, Owen Oakeshott as William and Laura White as Sarah.
When the Covid19 pandemic shut down his tour in Dial M For Murder overnight, Tom appeared in Original Theatre’s remotely recorded lockdown film of Torben Betts’s Apollo 13: The Dark Side Of The Moon and subsequently in Original Theatre artistic director Alastair Whatley’s online piece Into The Night.
“About a year later, out of the blue I got a text from Alastair saying he’d commissioned Torben to write a ghost story with me in mind for the lead role,” he recalls. “It was one of those flattering moments you dream of!”
Ten pages arrived, then the full draft, and now here Tom is, two weeks into the tour. “The Dark Side Of The Moon was only 50 minutes. This [rather longer] new play has been really fascinating but also extremely challenging because Torben has written it like machine gunfire, firing off in all directions, so you think ‘who’s line is it next?’!”
Working on the play in rehearsals and now in its early weeks on stage, 46-year-old Tom says: “It’s one of those pieces where, as we’ve gone along, we’ve all thought on our feet, with none of us quite sure at first what it was.
“With its dysfunctional family at odds in a psychological thriller, I knew it was an emotional piece, with all the humour in there too, but you don’t know what you’re dealing with, because it is scary, funny and emotional at the same time, and so you’re not sure how the audience will take it!
“On stage, it’s become more like a dark comedy, and it’s been really interesting listening to the audience reactions and realising they’re laughing from very early on. But there are really scary moments too and a couple of twists that we’re asking people not to give away afterwards.”
Learning his lines has found Tom thinking: “Torben is like Marmite! I sort of love him and hate him at the same time. His script is very interesting, very exciting and an absolute pig to learn.
“I haven’t talked to him about the part, though he did sit quietly in the corner at rehearsals on a few occasions, typing away, but not interfering. Torben has allowed Philip to shave, trim and manipulate the script, letting the production grow under his directorship.”
In turn, “Philip is one of the best directors I’ve worked with, always very patient” says Tom. “He’s an actor as well as a director, and so he really lets you play with it at first, and then he very carefully re-shapes it, inspiring you with his ideas. He’s like a wonderful conductor working with an orchestra, a fantastic maestro.”
Tom describes his lead role, Danny Sierra, as a “washed-up pop star from 20 years ago”. “To play his character, to be aware of his body language, I approach him as someone who’s been in the limelight, which I’ve experienced: the shiny bits, the pitfalls, the facades, the truth and reality of how jaded he is,” he says.
“I just try to make him human. Like all of us, he tries to justify the reasons things have happened in his life. He’s made mistakes, but he does have a heart, he’s not soulless, not completely selfish.”
Danny has headed to the isolated cottage for a family funeral and must communicate with his brother for the first time in years. “Everything unravels in this old farm cottage, which is like a deserted island with very few creature comforts. That initially turns the play into a comedy, but then it becomes twisted, warped, deranged and strange, so it’s very intriguing!” says Tom.
As for the ghost story…wait and see.
Original Theatre Company in Murder In The Dark, York Theatre Royal, September 19 to 23, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Age guidance: 14+.