Partly thanks to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we have developed a propensity for telling a spooky story or two over the festive period. The Old Red Lion has taken this approach this year in staging Duncan Gates’ adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s Benighted.
The Wavertons (& their friend Roger Penderel) are driving through the countryside on their way home to London for Christmas, when they get lost, run out of fuel & a heavy storm comes on. They find an old country house and decide to ask for shelter – after not receiving the warmest of welcomes, the Femms (brother & sister, Horace & Rebecca) permit them to stay. Soon after this, Gladys Du Cane & William Porterhouse are also stranded there, on their way to see the sea. Before long, secrets come to the fore: from the guests & the hosts. And they all start to wonder whether they will make it out alive…
Though the show is largely quite a comical one, with a spooky edge, it does touch on some deeper themes. The most obvious being the effects of war – in this case, the First World War. Roger is haunted by what happened during the conflict, but is also angry about the lack of work & money for his generation and has been in & out of depression. He finds a kindred spirit in Gladys, and they plan to make a new life together. On the other side of the coin is the Femms’ cousin Saul; he returned from the War out of control & aggressive. So much so he’s kept locked up out of the way, looked after by the butler.
Whilst a show doesn’t have to be placed in a particular box or labelled as such, this one does feel a bit confused in places and I’m not sure exactly what we as the audience should be taking away. There is a risk of the touching & serious exchange between Roger & Gladys being lost in the bizarre antics of Morgan the butler.
What is immediately striking is Gregor Donnelly’s set. The ultimate haunted house, with furniture askew & slanted at bizarre angles. Each element is wonderfully versatile, for example a ramp is easily transformed into the Wavertons’ car (with the simple addition of a steering wheel & some lights), which then acts as a driveway. The design gives the whole piece an eerie feel, and its practicality allows the production to be very self-contained.
The cast work well as an ensemble, with some of them doubling up. Tom Machell & Harrie Hayes are excellent as Philip & Margaret Waverton, displaying a natural repartee as husband & wife.
Matt Maltby, as Roger Penderel, stands out. He shows a wonderful sense of humour, making Roger very quick-witted – however, this is often tinged with melancholy. Once or twice he almost drops the façade (“Personally, I find gin makes me sad… Not nearly so sad as no gin at all!”), but Gladys sees through that. Maltby’s easy charm draws the audience to him and adds credence to Roger’s plight.
My verdict? A comical tale with some serious & relevant messages in there for good measure – and a few spooky goings on for a winter’s night…
Benighted runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 7 January 2017. Tickets are available online and from the box office.