Review: Murder in the Dark, Richmond Theatre

Torben Betts’ Murder in the Dark relishes in confounding expectations at Richmond Theatre and on tour

“We’ve just buried my mother and been in a bit of a car crash – I’m all over the place”

With doors that creak open by themselves, shadowy faces looming in the windows and an eerie version of ‘Three Blind Mice’ popping up at inopportune moments, the atmosphere in the isolated farmhouse where Murder in the Dark takes place is a spooky one indeed. It’s a stormy New Year’s Eve and a car accident has left a group of people stranded, saved only by the kindness of a local lady who has an empty cabin on her property. With no trains running until the morning, there’s no choice but to hunker down for the night but with no phone, no WiFi, no indoor toilet even, it threatens to be a punishing one.

Torben Betts’ new play starts off as that old fashioned thing of a straight up horror story determined to make you jump out of your seat. Philip Frank’s’ production proves quite effective in doing just that, dropping in jump scares when you’re least expecting them, Max Pappenheim’s rumbling sound design adding immeasurably to the atmosphere as surprises materialise out of any and every corners of Simon Kenny’s effective set. Quite what those surprises are we’re honour-bound not to tell, but suffice to say you might want to leave the lights on next time you need to pee….

A strong cast effectively play out the squabbling dynamics of this group, who emerge to be a fractured family. Tom Chambers’ Danny Sierra is at the heart of it all, a former pop star and current functional alcoholic forced to examine the detritus of the relationships around him, whether with brother (Owen Oakeshott), ex-wife (Rebecca Charles), estranged son (Jonny Green) or current squeeze (Laura White), a fractious bunch all, with histories waiting to be unpicked. Susie Blake steals her every scene though as the inimitable landlady Mrs Bateman, drily hilarious in her lack of concern for these Londoners all at sea.

Without wishing to give too much away, Betts also pulls his play into unexpected directions as it becomes clear that a single genre isn’t enough and here, the production really does ricochet like a pinball machine in a wild second half that has to be seen to be believed. It’s ambitious to be sure as it also draws inspiration from some recognisable televisual and cinematic sources, perhaps not always entirely successfully, but I admire the big swing that leaves you musing for a good while after the curtain has come down.

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