REVIEW: Original Theatre Company in Murder In The Dark, York Theatre Royal **

Tom Chambers’ Danny Sierra in Murder In The Dark. Picture: Pamela Raith

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?”.

When Torben Betts had one actor in mind to play a washed-up pop star, he wrote Murder In The Dark for Tom Chambers

Tom Chambers’ troubled pop star Danny Sierra in a scene from Murder In The Dark. Picture: Pamela Raith

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. 

Tom Chambers: “One of these flattering moments,” he says, of Torben Betts writing the role of Danny Sierra expressly for him

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.

Tom Chambers, seated, shares a lighthearted moment with director Philip Franks in the rehearsal room for Torben Betts’s thriller Murder In The Dark. Picture: Pamela Raith

“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 Age guidance: 14+. 

“Torben’s script is very interesting, very exciting and an absolute pig to learn,” says lead actor Tom Chambers. Picture: Pamela Raith