MURDER IN THE DARK

★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _THE ALEXANDRA.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _11th NOV.

November 7, 2023

images © Pamela Raith.

One can’t help but admire the fact that London’s The Mousetrap is not only the longest running show of any kind in the world… ever, but so too is it built upon a foundation of mystery and intrigue. The hushed, wink-wink, nudge-nudge marketing gimmickry of asking attendees to not spoil its singular ending as they leave the auditorium (currently the St Martin’s, where it has played since 1974) is a cheeky flourish for a show that, perhaps more than any other, epitomises the idea of ‘staying power’.

There’s a dash of that mischievous ‘in the know’ fraternité to be found at the periphery of Original Theatre’s Murder in the Dark, which arrives in Birmingham for a week-long engagement as part of its UK Tour. The opening pages of the show’s programme invite audience members to ‘spread the word (but not the spoilers)’ and it takes a chunk of the play to fully comprehend some of the slights of hand and misdirection you’ve unwittingly been prone to from before you even take your seats.

But let’s not go anywhere near those spoilers…

A mostly moody, occasionally spooky and inventive ghost story-cum-thriller hybrid from playwright Torben Betts, staged by the same company behind the recent fantastic production of The Mirror Crack’d, perhaps the biggest – and in some ways most pleasant – surprise is that Murder in the Dark somehow manages to be a bricolage of both fairly conventional theatrical thriller trappings blended in with some wonderfully unexpected and original deviations.

“It practically drips with typicality during its opening beats…”

It practically drips with typicality during its opening beats; a couple are left seemingly stranded in a remote farmstead one snow-battered New Year’s Eve after a minor car accident. Washed up former pop star, Danny (Tom Chambers) and his younger girlfriend, Sarah (Laura White) have a relationship on the rocks (and not in the way Danny would like), but they’re forced to put on their best behaviour for quirky oddball of a benefactor, farming Widow Mrs Bateman (TV and stage legend Susie Blake).

And, seeing as the inciting crash happened on the way home from his mother’s funeral, some of Danny’s estranged family are in tow, too; ex-wife Rebecca (Rebecca Charles), son Jake (Jonny Green) who insists on calling his disappointment of a father by his first name, and brother William (Owen Oakeshot), with whom Danny clearly shares a storied and checkered past.

An intriguing if slightly plodding, character-centric first Act weaves through the intriguing dynamics between the cast, keeping the creepiness and slowly unfolding sense of dread mostly at the periphery. Why does that television keep turning itself on, and always to that creepy song? Did Jake really see a ballerina in the outhouse, as he seems so insistent on? And what of the rumours that the dotty Mrs Bateman may have offed her husband via some lethal broth?

Given the title and general setup, it’s easy to spend much of the first half of the show expecting the inevitable bodies to start turning up, for accusations and suspicions to begin flying, and those early kernels of motives and moments of rage and betrayal to get their moment in the snow.

And yet, Murder isn’t content to keep playing its (curiously already-tuned) guitar strings to such a typical beat.

To delve too deeply into the twists and turns of the second Act in particular would ruin much of the experience, but suffice to say it becomes an altogether more distinctive and occasionally trippy beast, post-interval. Whether it sticks the landing, and if its detour into decidedly more heightened fare is as original and unpredictable as it seems to think, will likely depend on the individual theatregoer. This particular writer had one major twist involving one of the supporting characters pegged fairly on, but it was entirely due to the show capitalising on the unique strengths and opportunities of being a staged play that allowed me to piece together what was happening quite organically.

“Despite seeming to not so much suffer from an identity crisis as it comes to actively revel in it, Murder is buoyed by some sterling performances grounding it amidst all the uncertainty and madness.”

Despite seeming to not so much suffer from an identity crisis as it comes to actively revel in it, Murder is buoyed by a couple of solid performances grounding it amidst all the uncertainty and madness.

Chambers is a decent central force around which the show’s strangeness percolates. A troubled, occasionally tortured soul, Chambers does a good job of keeping the audience hesitant as to whether or not his ‘Danny’ is someone to root for (hint: for the most part, he isn’t), and the show as a whole does a good job of finding a lot of lighter, comedic beats amidst all the foreboding and angst. Around him, Laura White adds vim, nuance and dimension to a slightly more plainly-written and atypical ‘sassy younger girlfriend’ role, but others, such as Rebecca Charles, as ex-wife Rebecca, and Owen Oakeshott as Danny’s brother, get fairly thankless, cookie-cutter fare to work with.

Two of the standouts are Jonny Green as Danny’s frustrated, sardonic son, Jake, and the ever-dependable Susie Blake as the show’s best character, the perpetually unclockable Mrs Bateman. Green gets some fantastic moments searing a few home truths into his deadbeat dad, putting in a fine turn that simmers with barely-below-the-surface disdain and ire, whilst Blake is an absolute force as a character who even up until the show’s final moments you aren’t entirely sure how to square. It’s a fantastic gear shift for a character actress par excellence who has in recent years delivered lovely, but decidedly more homely, turns as the likes of Miss Marple and even Queen Elizabeth II. The bubbly, strange, sinister, funny, suspicious soup of unsettling strangeness that is Mrs Bateman couldn’t be further apart from those cosier types, and both the character, and Blake’s interpretation of her, are amongst Murder’s biggest coups.

“Blake is an absolute force as a character who even up until the show’s final moments you aren’t entirely sure how to square.”

It’s probably fair to say that logic, if nothing else, dictates Murder in the Dark probably won’t be the next Mousetrap. For all of its creativity and warping second half in particular, its postmodern vibe doubtless lacks some of the clarity and polish of, say, a conventional Agatha Christie or thereabouts. Also, for a show that gradually ratchets up its horror, it’s never particularly scary. It’s a handsome production, for sure – with particular credit to Paul Pyant for his ominous, naturalistic lighting, and some suitably eerie sound from Max Pappenheim.

There are certainly plenty of ideas, themes and even the occasional allegory bandying around in this dark, weird world of Murder. As mentioned, it has an undercurrent of comedy that slices throughout. Some of the madcap derailing of its latter stages works, some of it feels obvious, or ultimately falls a little too on-the-nose to be particularly profound or shocking. But as an intriguing evening of mystery and spooky questioning, peppered with engaging performances, it did at least keep us wondering and second-guessing right up to its closing moments.

As promised, whilst we shan’t be divulging any spoilers, we’ll certainly spread the word.

Although the likes of Mousetrap and Woman in Black have no need to keep the lights on at night for fear of this supplanting them, this is nonetheless a Murder well worth checking out for those who appreciate the things that go ‘bump’ in the night, who may be looking for something that little bit different from their typical on-stage spooks, and who aren’t afraid to realise that…

…no, we’ll leave it at that.

We wouldn’t want to upset Mrs Bateman now, would we?

A curious, creepy, interesting yet uneven spot of stage storytelling. Somehow postmodern and predictable, original yet typical, all at once. Whilst it lacks any real bite or genuine surprise, Susie Blake’s giddily sinister and offbeat turn in particular is a delicious treat that keeps a wobblier ship about her afloat.

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