Writer: Emlyn Williams
Director: Luke Sheppard
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The scene is Forest Corner, an isolated bungalow in the forest belonging to the selfish, overbearing and thoroughly unpleasant Mrs Bramson. In Forest Corner, we find a small household in which the niceties of life in the 1930s are played out, but one is immediately aware that civilisation here is the thinnest of veneers and watching that veneer stripped away by a newcomer holds a ghoulish fascination.
Mrs Bramson is cared for by two servants, a housekeeper, Mrs Terence, and a maid, Dora. Her impoverished niece, the intelligent and sharp Olivia, is also treated like a servant. Having no money of her own, her only possible escape is to marry. While she fully understands her position, she is unconvinced by the courting of aregular visitor, Hubert, a somewhat pompous and boring individual who, nevertheless, worships Olivia and spends much of the play awaiting her response to his proposal.
Then one day, Dan arrives. Clearly a ne’er-do-well, he is summoned to the cottage having had a one-night stand with Dora, who now finds herself pregnant. Mrs Bramson has agreed that Dora may stay on in her household provided Dan agrees to marry Dora. But Dan immediately reads the situation and quickly inveigles his way into Mrs Bramson’s affections, becoming her companion and meeting her every need. It is obvious to the audience and Olivia that something is not quite right with Dan. When the body of a missing local lady is discovered nearby, the tension goes up a notch. Who would want to do such a thing and why? Could Dan be involved? Emlyn Williams’ skilful writing builds tension as we see the balance of power shift in Forest Corner and what happens when night does indeed fall.
Night Must Fall must have been pretty shocking in 1935, dealing quite openly as it does with human emotions and pregnancy outside of wedlock. And it has the potential to be a full-blown melodrama with caricatures for characters. But the beauty of Luke Sheppard’s subtle direction is that this does not happen. Each character is nuanced and fully believable. Will Featherstone’s Dan is distinctly unnerving. He swings from confident con-man in Mrs Bramson’s presence, with metaphorical knowing winks to Olivia (Niamh McGrady) and audience alike that cause us to feel somewhat uncomfortable in his presence, to an altogether more menacing persona in her absence. Featherstone leads us to believe that Dan is maybe capable of anything.
McGrady’s Olivia, the archetypal blue-stocking, is also hard to fathom. She is the first to realise that Dan is a consummate actor, playing on Mrs Bramson’s weakness of character. She also demonstrates that she can manipulate the weaker members of the household, too. Is she what she seems? McGrady keeps us guessing as to exactly what Olivia is thinking all the way to the end.
Gwen Taylor is superb as the matriarch, Mrs Bramson. Ruling the household with a rod of iron from her wheelchair, she becomes a giggly schoolgirl around Dan and seems incapable of seeing what we and Olivia are sure must be there. Taylor remains believable and through her bluster we occasionally catch sight of her vulnerabilities and begin to understand her need to be pampered.
The minor characters of Mrs Terence, Dora and Hubert could be simply sketched in but Sheppard also avoids this. As a result, Mandi Symonds’ Mrs Terence is a lovely counterpoint to the heavyweight action between the three principles. Totally straightforward and matter-of-fact, she releases tension as she goes. We accompany Alasdair Buchan’s Hubert on his uncomfortable journey seeking Olivia’s affectionsand also feel his despair and bafflement when he is inevitably rebuffed. And one can’t help feeling for Melissa Vaughan’s Dora, the dim-witted maid who unwittingly unleashed Dan on the household and who now can’t quite understand why he has so little time for her.
The tension is skilfully ramped up and one is on the edge of one’s seat to see just how it will turn out – are our assumptions about the characters we see justified? Or have we been taken in by appearances just as much as Mrs Bramson? It’s not until the very end that we find the answers and are able to leave chilled but satisfied.
Runs until 01 October 2016 | Image:Alastair Muir