Saturday, December 10, 2016

Review: 'Benighted' at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 8th December 2016

With Stephen Daldry's revival of JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls making waves in the West End, what better time to explore one of his lesser-known works? Benighted was originally published as a novel in 1927 and subsequently adapted in 1932 for the screen by Frankenstein director James Whale as The Old Dark House. In 2016 it stands as a rather neglected piece of work, this adaptation by Duncan Gates the first time it's ever been staged.

The Old Red Lion is developing a knack for theatrical necromancy, resurrecting one of Arthur Miller's earliest works last year: No Villain. Obscure and little-performed works by iconic dramatists tend to fall into one of two categories. Either they're genuinely 'lost' (as was the case with No Villain, eventually discovered in a dusty pile of manuscripts) or they're superseded by later, more successful works by the author. 

Benighted, Priestley's second published work, falls into the latter category. Its themes presage his later work (specifically An Inspector Calls) as if he knew what he wanted to write about but hadn't worked out how.

It's the 1920s and prissy young marrieds Philip and Margaret Waverton (Tom Machell & Harrie Hayes) are trapped in an apocalyptic rainstorm. As mudslides wash the road away and water beats on the roof of their car they unhappily bicker about what to do next. They're soon joined by caddish gadabout Penderel (Matt Maltby), who emerges from a chest in the rear. The trio must seek shelter and, with no other options, make for an eerie house upon a nearby hill

This place proves to be inhabited by a family who're half Hammer Horror and half Monty Python: Horace Femm (Michael Sadler), a deflated old queen unhappily mired in his family's wreckage, his deranged sister who will not shut up about unsettling, creepy stuff and ominous knockings from a mad relative trapped in the attic - apparently having been in unquenchable murderous rage since he returned from World War I. 

On the plus side, it is dry...

This motley crew are soon joined by another couple escaping the storm. Northern textile mogul William Porterhouse (Ross Forder) and chirpy flapper Gladys Du Cane (Jessica Bay). All the five have to do is wait out the storm and avoid the disturbed denizens of this strange house, a simple task that soon proves exceedingly tricky.

At it's most basic level, Benighted is a camp horror comedy. The performances are dialled up to scenery chewing 11, the lightning arrives with pinpoint comedy timing and the mannered, stuffy dialogue is cheesy in all the right ways. The show is peppered with giggles from the audience as its characters (particularly the amusingly blithe Wavertons) bumble their way through with the night with not much more than a stiff upper lip and sense of English propriety. In fact, at its best, Benighted bears a pleasing tonal resemblance to the stage version of The 39 Steps. 

Unfortunately, the comedic tone is repeatedly punctured by some clumsy segues into straight drama. There's a Very Serious Message about the psychological damage inflicted on soldiers during the Great War that, while accurate in its sentiments, feels like it's been stapled into the script from another play. Additionally, for all the delicate writing about men bottling up their trauma and buckling under its weight, it attempts to conclude the argument via a towering, grunting, gas mask wearing B-movie monster man. It doesn't work.

By the time the curtain falls, Benighted feels like it's composed of about ten separate dramatic ideas and character sketches that have been awkwardly stitched together. None of the mini-plots resolve satisfyingly, leaving the play feeling a bit like the contents of Priestley's scratch pad. Tantalisingly, you can spot bits of An Inspector Calls in these sketches - most notably when the Birling-esque Mr Porterhouse casually explains how he ruined one of his worker's lives for no reason.

But, though it never really gels, this definitely isn't a chore. Gregor Donnelly's dark wooden set works gangbusters at creating an Addams Family atmosphere not to mention accentuating the claustrophobic nature of the Old Red Lion's theatre space. On top of that the performances are uniformly ace (I quickly developed a soft spot for Harrie Hayes), the jokes all hit home and the sound design is top notch. You can tell why Benighted has largely been forgotten, but it isn't without its charms.


Benighted is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 7th January. Tickets here.

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