Benighted – Old Red Lion Theatre, London

Writer: JB Priestley
Adaptor: Duncan Gates
Director: Stephen Whitson
Reviewer: Stephen Bates

“The ultimate creepy Christmas treat” boasts the publicity for this adaptation of JB Priestley’s 1927 novel, Benighted. Perhaps the association between creepiness and the Festive Season has something to do with Dickens, but, otherwise, the only things remotely Christmassy in this production are a quick snatch of Ding Dong Merrily on High, seemingly inserted as an afterthought, and a good old punch-up that brings the party to a halt.

tell-us-block_editedThere is not even snow in the remote part of Wales where the action takes place, just rain in what could be the longest continuous spell of thunder and lightening in the history of the Principality. A tetchy Philip Waverton (Tom Machell) and his assertive wife Margaret (Harrie Hayes) are stranded a long way from their Hampstead pad when their car breaks down in the middle of the storm. Out of the boot pops jolly Roger Penderel (Matt Maltby) and the three head off to find shelter in the nearest house – The Old Dark House as it became known when the novel was adapted into the film of that name in 1932. This is not the sort of place that would rate highly on Trip Adviser.

Later, they are joined by another stranded couple, tycoon William Porterhouse (Ross Forder) and showgirl Gladys Du Cane (Jessica Bay), to share their experiences of things that go bump in the night. Michael Sadler looks suitably demented as both the householder and the servant guarding mad cousin Saul, who is locked in the attic, and doubling up of roles by other actors allows for plenty of unexpected entrances. The doors, the floorboards and the plot all creak loudly and one of the actors actually has to speak the line  “is there anybody there?” without bursting into laughter.

Happily, what could have been an evening more ghastly than ghostly becomes one of morbid merriment, largely due to director Stephen Whitson successfully navigating a course between parody and gravity. There are many inventive touches in the staging and the company of six all score by playing (or, to be more exact, over-playing) their roles straight. Credit too to Gregor Donnelly, whose set in dark wood makes clever use of a space that can sometimes be awkward and whose 1920s costume designs look perfect. Lighting by Zia Bergin-Holly completes the spine-tingling effects.

Adaptor Duncan Gates finds traces of the writer with a social conscience that Priestley was to become, with attacks on heartless capitalism and the damage inflicted by the Great War. However, it would be quite a feat to delve into the hidden depths of characters as shallow as these, so that the serious passages in the play feel out of place and do not really work. The production is at its best when it is not taking itself too seriously.

80 minutes (without an interval) is just about the right running time to relate this thin story briskly without the jokes and the shocks becoming tired. Towards the end, the storm abates and we are told that water levels outside are subsiding, which is good news indeed for both the marooned characters and the audience heading out into an Islington still mopping up from its burst water main.

Runs until 7 January 2017 | Image: Chris Gardner

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One Comment

  1. Rather than an adaptation of Priestly’s novel this play is an adaption of James Whale’s The Old Dark House (Universal 1933) and as such the screenwriter Benn Levy deserves the writing credit.

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