It’s been three years since my last visit to the Park Theatre, and I am warmly welcomed on my return, albeit with a rather chilling production of When Darkness Falls by Paul Morrissey (who also directs) and James Milton.
I have high hopes for this piece judging by the impressive set, which is a convincingly detailed office complete with a large L-shaped desk, filing cabinets, an office printer and an upturned waste-paper bin, which cleverly turns out to be a stage light. Boxes are stacked high to the ceiling and ‘Dream a Little Dream’ plays quietly in the background, its silky and foreboding tune providing the perfect opening tone for the play.
John Blondel (Will Barton) is a teacher on the island of Guernsey working on a vlog as part of his role for the local Historical Society. Blondel is a middle-aged, middle-class Englishman, a non-believer of the paranormal, with seemingly closed views and a ‘don’t be ridiculous’ type attitude. The Speaker (Alex Phelps), is the complete opposite: a profound, young and intense writer who is very much a believer. Phelps portrays the Speaker with naturalistic style and an intense energy, although I do feel his initial projection is a little much.
The play opens quite literally with a bang before some lovely moments of comedy which break up the intensity of the piece well. As well as John’s failed attempts at recording a video, his constant interruptions of the Speaker’s stories are impeccably well timed by Barton and offer a great contrast to the Phelps’ soberness.
The technical aspects of the piece are also nicely done, creating a tense atmosphere, and my heart gets a good workout throughout the evening. I must also commend the costume department for the contrasting characters’ attires. The Speaker looks like a typical young writer, with slicked-back hair, dressed in shabby brown trousers and a grey jumper. Meanwhile John Blondel’s stiffness is reflected in his shirt and tie and coffee-coloured blazer.
I do believe ghost stories are one of the trickiest genres to get right without being too cliché, and particularly hard to achieve in live theatre. The ghostly elements in this play, however, are well done and the mood is accurate. What I struggle with is the structure of the piece, and the long, drawn-out monologues by the Speaker, which make it feel like we are there just to listen to a story rather than experience a theatrical show. There are lots of beautiful descriptions, but the monologues themselves are lengthy and feel repetitive after a while.
It also occurs to me throughout this piece that I am bored by the choice of normative gender roles in this story. Maybe I am being a bit of a nit-picker here, as this isn’t specifically this play’s problem, but I do wonder why it is so often the case that the women are the ghosts and vulnerable victims who lose their lives, whilst the men are the investigators. I don’t think the unoriginal choice of gender roles in this piece is a coincidence, as it is written and directed by men; however, I think it would be nice to mix it up. After all, the most successful, long-running ghost story in the London theatre scene, ‘The Woman in Black’, also happens to be a play about two men and the ghost of a woman.
This play will certainly give you the chills and make you jump, but the uneven plot and structure of the piece let it down.
When Darkness Falls is playing at the Park Theatre until 4th September. For more information and tickets, see the Park Theatre website.