Writers: Paul Morrissey and James Milton
Director: Paul Morrissey
History is merely perception and a collection of lies we have decided upon in Paul Morrissey and James Milton’s new play When Darkness Falls, which premieres at the Park Theatre. This intense two-hander, running at 90-minutes straight through, argues that history and the paranormal are not so different, that what we think are facts are instead choices. Telling five related ghost stories set on the Isle of Guernsey, Morrissey and Milton ask what do you believe?
Preparing for his weekly vlog, sceptic John is head of the Guernsey Historical Society and agrees to meet a young man with a selection of spooky stories. Eager to prove him wrong and looking for a rational explanation, John lets his guest speak. But a storm rages outside, the lights keep going out and the atmosphere thickens as the two men confront history head on.
When Darkness Falls develops an interesting cumulative potency, and while each story on its own is creepy if not truly chilling, the narrative develops a gripping effect as its purpose becomes clear and the presentation choices eventually make their mark on the audience. While some of the these feel like easy theatre tricks in which the magic and illusion designer John Bulleid gets to have some Blithe Spirit-ed fun with things falling off walls, objects opening by themselves, and the rather obligatory blood-curdling scream denoting scene breaks – see also 2.22: A Ghost Story which uses them as abundant punctuation – ultimately Morrissey and Milton build more tension into the story, letting the words and oral tradition of ghost stories do its work.
There are hints enough throughout to figure out the ending, predict some elements of the final story and pick up the major twist ahead of time, but the journey to it is very enjoyable, particularly as Morrissey and Milton vary the presentation style. This allows the actors to move between their fixed characters interacting in the modern day, the dramatic retelling of each portent of doom and its partial re-enactment with John and The Speaker personifying the historical roles.
Our imagination is enhanced by Bethany Gupwell’s lighting design that immerses the audience in the key moments of these vividly recreated scenarios, not just the office set-up in which designer Justin Williams deliberately blends the 1980s with 2020s for reasons that will become clear, but also the impression of the 1940s wartime tunnels in particular using smoke effects and a stark white light to imply subterraneous eeriness.
Will Barton’s John is at times the driving force of the play and the straight man, his purpose to receive and react to the stories being offered. John’s confidence is slowly eroded as the night unfolds and Barton portrays his rising fear and uncertainty well while shrugging on the persona of various characters with ease.
Alex Phelps has to be equally elusive as The Speaker, a man we learn almost nothing about but who must command the audience’s attention for most of the play as the storyteller. Phelps has a way of looking carefully around the room, directing his speech to every corner of it and while the early stories tick by, the delivery of the final two including the big reveal is carefully managed to create the right effect.
With an interest in the personal consequences of local history, folk tales and mythology, When Darkness Falls covers a lot of ground in a fairly short time and while the central philosophy about the affinities between the paranormal and history could be beneficially expanded to give the show an added gravitas, once the creepiness moves into the room with the characters, the play finds an engrossing rhythm and the anthology approach builds to a coherent whole.
Runs until 4 September 2021