Writer: Torben Betts
Director: Philip Franks
It is always commendable when a production company tours a brand-new original play even from an established writer such as Torben Betts. Theatre needs new stories to tell if it is going to continue to grow. The question has to be whether Murder in the Dark was the right choice of script?
At first glance, the success of plays such as The Woman in Black and of television series like Inside No. 9, shows there is a continuing appetite for scripts in the psychological thriller and ghost story genres. And that is very clearly where this production is aiming to sit. Unfortunately, it fails to work as a fully satisfying piece of theatre.
Audiences are asked not to spoil the plot so as to keep the twists and turns a secret and that, of course, prevents a full discussion of the plot. However, it is not a spoiler to say that the action takes place in an isolated farmhouse on New Year’s Eve where a former minor pop star and his dysfunctional family are forced to take refuge after a car accident.
This is a very conventional starting place for this sort of tale. As the action develops, we are reminded of common tropes from other thrillers. And that, in part, is a central weakness of the script. Very little of the plot feels truly original. It all feels rather too familiar and derivative.
The closing minutes do deliver a number of twists and turns. However, there is a lack of narrative clarity which leaves the audience somewhat baffled by the ending. And, for the most part, a thriller needs a satisfying conclusion.
Some of the uneven plotting could be forgiven if the dialogue was crisp and characterful. Too often, the script fails on that front as well. None of the characters emerge as rounded human beings and that makes it harder for the audience to invest in the action.
Visually the production looks a little lost on the Oxford Playhouse stage. There are some nice touches but the overall aesthetic lacks the necessary claustrophobia to match the demands of the piece.
The cast, led by Tom Chambers and Susie Blake, do their best to overcome the challenges of the script. It is clear that director Philip Franks has similarly done his best to create the requisite tension but, in the end, the hard work and talent on and off stage cannot save the production.
There are some scary moments and a couple of ideas which could have been more successfully explored. In essence, this is a brave attempt at creating a new thriller that has not fully succeeded.
Runs until 30 September 2023 and on tour