We’ve had a bit of a Priestley renaissance this year haven’t we? Stephen Daldry’s An Inspector Calls is celebrating a 25th anniversary run, The Roundabout got its first revival courtesy of the Park Theatre, and now the world premiere of Benighted. The Old Red Lion Theatre hosts Duncan Gates’ adaptation of this early J B Priestley novel – it’s a fitting swansong for Stewart Pringle’s three-year tenure as Artistic Director.
“And then there were four!” the effervescent Roger Pendrel (Matt Maltby) vamps. He’s right; Benighted’s plot feels as cut from the J B Priestley cloth as any 1920’s murder mystery. Husband and Wife Philip and Margaret Wolverton (Tom Machell and Harrie Hayes), find themselves stuck in a storm with only Roger for company. Trying to find shelter, they come across an old derelict house, run by the bonkers Horace (Michael Sadler) and his sister Rebecca (Ross Forder), with some definite skeletons in the attic. Businessman William Porterhouse (also Forder) and dancer Gladys du Cane (Jessica Bay) round off the group. Quite how many will be left once morning arrives waits to be seen.
Gates captures the spirit of Priestley through and through. There’s a genuine sense of dread and tension, as we’re drip fed more and more spooky details about the house. The other horrors are more subdued – a game of ‘Truth’ simply gets to the heart of our character’s goals, without the need for much pretence. Gladys shouldn’t be taken at face value. Margaret wonders if her future will include her family. Roger is not as jolly as he once seemed. It’s evident the greater fears of this world exist beyond the walls we’re shown, fears of the unknown in Post-War Britain. There’s a timely relevance here that you can’t shake, but I think the only real shortfall in the script comes with the climax – it’s slightly clumsily done, a little unsatisfying after the prolonged build-up. The ending comes a bit out of nowhere too.
Every actor brings a fun 1920’s element to their character, a gung-ho personality here, a passive eye-roll there. You can tell Sadler is having a lot of fun, his barmy, bug-eyed portrayal being a favourite of mine – he’s so unnecessarily spooky, I love it. Also, props to Forder for being so restrained as Rebecca; it would be very easy to ham it up here. Director Stephen Whitson, in a welcome move, doesn’t overcomplicate his staging, but it’s a different matter with his tone. There’s more than a little of The 39 Steps to the finale, with slow-mo fight scenes and Scooby-Doo style antics – it feels inconsistent with the slow tension building we’ve seen so far.
Step forward designers Gregor Donnelly, Zia Bergin-Holly and David Gregor. It takes tremendous skill to take a stage as minimal as The Old Red Lion’s and completely transform it, transporting you into the world of the story. Donnelly’s created a really original haunted house, all polished wood panels and staggered levels. Bergin-Holly’s exquisite lighting is as big on shadows and atmosphere, as it is on gratuitous, terrifying lightning flashes. Gregor’s sound is all-encompassing, whether it’s the rain dripping down the back of your neck, thunderclaps that shake the ground under your feet, or smaller, subtler bumps in the night. It’s so wonderful to see West End production values in a pub theatre.
This is a short, sharp production of a forgotten classic, and a great example of how much you can transform even the smallest of spaces. A great team takes you slap bang into the middle of Priestley’s world, where the horrors of the night pale in terror to what your future has in store. The third act lets things down a bit, but it’s still an engaging story from the first thunderclap to the last.
Benighted is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre til January 7 2017.
Photo: Chris Gardner