Writer: Emlyn Williams
Director: Luke Sheppard
Reviewer: Paul Couch
Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall was written in 1934 (first produced in 1935) and, at the time, must have seemed shocking to an audience with just access to embryonic cinema and television yet to arrive. By 2016, it has dated, of course, but not as much as one would expect.
The setting is a bungalow on the edge of a forest in Essex. The house is owned by Mrs Bramson, an elderly and apparently invalid widow whose sole purpose seems to be making everyone around her as miserable as possible, particularly her live-in niece and two servants. So far, so stock set-up, until the arrival of a young man, Dan, threatens to cause much upheaval, particularly when a missing woman turns up, sliced and diced, and poorly hidden at the bottom of Mrs Bramson’s garden.
Veteran actor Gwen Taylor plays the fearsome Mrs Bramson with gusto. Taylor’s portrayal is so realistic that one suspects half the audience would have volunteered to step up on stage and hurry the vicious old harridan to her Maker themselves. Confined for the most part to a wheelchair, she trundles around the stage like a burgundy Dalek, spitting venom at anyone within striking distance, milking her infirmities for all she’s worthwhile guzzling chocolates for comfort.
Will Featherstone is electric as Dan, who appears early in the proceedings, displaying a thin veneer of sincerity and sanity. By the second act, most of this has been shed and Featherstone ramps it up to full-on lunacy that none of the other characters, save for Niamh McGrady’s Olivia, seem to notice. “What do you think of Dan?” people ask at regular intervals, with the inevitable response of “Oh, he’s alriiight!”. We suspect Dan is indeed mad as a box of frogs but, there again, so is everyone else in this play.
Olivia, Mrs Brampton’s niece, is an archetypal 1930s middle-class young woman, employed by her cantankerous aunt as a companion of sorts, but longing to break free and get some excitement in her life. She’s horrified at the thought of marrying the dull-as-ditchwater Hubert (Alasdair Buchan), who seems intent on wedding and bedding her, but in a stiff upper lip, gentlemanly sort of way – marital duties once a week with the lights out and winceyette pyjamas done up to the neck.
At first, it seems Williams created a great many superfluous characters but, of course, this is a device to create doubt over who did it. It could have been any of them or none of them and we’re left waiting until the penultimate scene to find the truth.
One of the stars of Night Must Fall is David Woodhead’s beautifully naturalistic set – exquisite down to the last nic-nak and screaming to have some blood splattered across its beige/brown face. A cutaway roof exposes the forest beyond, giving the sense of foreboding that seems to sit over this dwelling like a dense and malicious fog.
The biggest problem with this production are some bizarre decisions by Director Luke Sheppard to intersperse the suspense with odd farcical moments in the first act, which deflate the mounting psychological tension of the piece. However, by Act Two, pace is pretty much en pointe and it rattles along as sprightly as it can for an 80-year-old.
Accomplished work from a hugely talented ensemble cast in a play that’s seen better days.
Runs until 22 October 2016 | Image: Alastair Muir