“Gin is excellent”
It is perhaps appropriate that for Stewart Pringle’s final show at the helm of the Old Red Lion, he’s gone with his beloved horror genre. And following in the success of their Arthur Miller discovery No Villain, this Angel pub theatre is impressively punching above its weight again with a world (stage) premiere of a JB Priestley piece – Benighted. First published as a novel in 1927 and adapted for cinema as The Old Dark House – apparently as the first ever haunted house drama – Duncan Gates’ version offers a stirring alternative to most other festive fare.
You notice the difference as soon as you walk into the theatre – Gregor Donnelly’s angular, expressionistic design giving a sense of the weirdness of the creepy mansion in which a number of people are forced to seek refuge during an apocalyptic stormy night in the Welsh countryside (I’m calling it Storm Myfanwy). And though they get respite from the weather, the atmosphere remains troubled as the eeriness of their surroundings – and their hosts – provokes a great unburdening of the soul as chilling fears run up their spine and secrets come a-tumbling out.
It is tempting, and indeed possible, to see the beginnings of the writer into whom Priestley would evolve – the social conscience in plain evidence, the louring shadow of the Great War inescapable – and Donnelly’s design choices could be seen as a nod to the once-again-in-the-West-End An Inspector Calls. But tonally, it is hard to tell where Gates’ adaptation and Stephen Witson’s production wants to sit – a playful bit of staging early on evokes a car with almost comedic sound effects and a strobe-lit fight scene is practically slapstick in nature. Which is fine apart from when the play wants to be serious.
Which is often, and so Benighted can’t quite reconcile its swerves into an effective whole. Characters who jump right out of their skin at the merest creak of a floorboard or candlelit appearance of a person, are then handed overly earnest speeches in an awkwardly placed game of Truth (without the Dare) which tries too hard to make us care about them. The most affecting sequence is one which comes late on, as wartime experiences are shared – credit to Matt Maltby’s haunted Penderel here – but the ending that follows cuts it cruelly short.