AFTER a five-and-a-half-hour slog from Norfolk that felt like one long detour, your reviewer took to his Upper Circle seat last night just in time to be greeted by the sound of a car. A cruel joke, but one in keeping with the tone of Torben Betts’s ghost story.
“It’s fair to say that Murder In The Dark is something of a departure for me as regards genre,” says Betts in his programme notes. “If I am known for anything as a playwright, it’s for dark comedies of social embarrassment with a bit of political commentary thrown in.”
What is Murder In The Dark? Despite its title, this is not a modern twist on an Agatha Christie whodunit, thereby offering an immediate contrast with Original Theatre’s last Theatre Royal visit with The Mirror Crack’d last October. An immediate contrast too for Susie Blake, swapping Miss Marple for farmer’s wife/religious zealot Mrs Bateman.
Betts’s challenge from Original Theatre artistic director Alastair Whatley was to “write something that would, hopefully, both disturb and entertain”. The result is still a dark comedy of social embarrassment, but with a bit of moralising about the price of fame thrown in, in a supernatural psychological thriller cum dysfunctional family drama.
Rather than clever twists and turns, in the sleight-of-hand manner of The Woman In Black, thudding bumps in the road are administered in the style of a horror movie with a relish for shlock humour.
Betts enjoys pulling the rug from under your presumptions from the off, even setting up a routine thriller opening where washed-up pop star Danny Sierra (Tom Chambers) and his young girlfriend Sarah (Laura White) are led into a dingy, creepy rural cottage by the strange, eerie Mrs Bateman and her scary dog (heard but never seen) after a car crash .
It is New Year’s Eve: the nearest shop is 20 miles away, but the hostile weather means they are cut off anyway; the electricity is on the blink; the television keeps sparking into life with Three Blind Mice; there is no wi-fi connection; the loo and the shower are in a shed outside.
Car crash? Rescued by a frankly weird woman? How very Kathy Bates and Misery. Susie Blake will go on to give this chameleon play’s most enjoyable performance as someone who knows more from the past than she is letting on.
Tom Chambers, by contrast, has to wade through the quagmire of playing the deeply unlovable but once adored Danny Sierra (real name Nigel Carmichael,before pop stardom came his way with Dance Party Five and their chart-topping Murder In The Dark).
Danny is a self-pitying alcoholic, and one by one, family members from the crash arrive at the cottage to paint the full picture, the day after his mother’s funeral. His more talented, songwriter brother William (Owen Oakeshott), discarded in pursuit of fame. His ex-wife Rebecca (Rebecca Charles), discarded (but he still loves her, he protests). His songwriter son Jake (Jonny Green), neglected, drifting, resentful.
In truth, they are all unappealing, not great company on stage, the general nastiness turning scenes rancid, but not aiding Betts’s pursuit of comedy, which keeps changing its tack too, briefly farce at the start of the second half, but more often clunky.
Did Jake and later Danny see a young woman in a ballerina dancer’s costume or were they imagining it? Not telling!
Perhaps this supernatural undercurrent prompted director Philip Franks to say “we’ll 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” in Betts’s play. Hence Betts’s moralistic tone.
Horror story, nightmare, fever dream, sometimes hammy comedy thriller, suffused with ugly family politics, Murder In The Dark never settles on one path, to the detriment of being as unsettling as it needs to be. What’s more, too clever by half in its trickery, it makes less sense the more the plot thickens but unravels as logic takes a hike.
Murder In The Dark? Left in the dark, more like. Definitely not a whodunit, it ultimately has you asking Betts, “whydunit?”.