Is there such a thing as a ‘spine-chilling comedy’? If so, I haven’t found one yet, and – truth be told – this stage adaptation of JB Priestley’s Benighted was neither frightening nor funny unless one were to chortle at certain aspects of this production. I managed not to, thinking it too unkind to a show that is not, I must emphasise, far from a flop. But, for instance, Priestley’s novel describes a “terrifying unexpectedness” in the manner of speech of Rebecca Femm (Ross Forder); here, the lady of the house seemed quite harmless, if eccentric, and of a religious disposition.
I didn’t mind the lampooning of organised religion in the play. Having been raised in a borderline puritanical household I rather welcomed it. Less welcome was a slow-motion scene, which, aside from a lighting sequence most disagreeable to audience members with epilepsy and other similar conditions, simply wasn’t convincing. At the risk of revealing too much, I disagreed with the response of some in the audience: there’s nothing funny about a brawl, even a badly choreographed one. A later scene had most of its fight action off-stage, which I thought was slightly bizarre – a key moment in the narrative had occurred, and the audience is sat staring at an empty stage.
The set was suitably gloomy, though there was little to distinguish one place from another without a heavy reliance on descriptions in the script. This led to me to consider whether the show may have been just as effective with a ‘poor theatre’ set. After all, this supposed thriller took place largely under cover of darkness, and while it is in keeping with the novel on which it is based that there were occasions in which little could be made out, the set is not given ample opportunity to be lit up and thus fully appreciated.
There is, at least, wonderful variation in the characters, each vividly and distinctly unique. The stand-out performance for me came from Michael Sadler’s Horace Femm, who I thought had the best rapport with the audience, despite – or maybe because of – the character’s sheer eccentricity, which came across both in speech and facial expressions. William Porterhouse (also Ross Forder) was most dislikeable in his aloofness, though it is better, on balance, to be a memorable character than merely a pleasant one.
Aspects of the story as given in the novel are overlooked, and I don’t just mean extraneous details. Horace Femm, for instance, states the house is which he lives in is not his own. But, however important the proprietor is in the novel, in this play it’s neither here nor there. It’s him, Mr Femm, to whom his visitors look to. I very much liked the ‘game of truth’ – in both novel and play it presents character development relatively succinctly and with impressive depth.
The sound and light effects to denote a particularly stormy night were contrived and artificial, only ever strengthening once a character had finished a line, or what Philip (Tom Machell) and Margaret Waverton (Harrie Hayes) called a ‘soliloquy’. (I question their definition of ‘soliloquy’, but that’s another matter.) Wouldn’t thunder and all the rest of it occur regardless of whether someone had finished speaking? It was all suspiciously too neat and tidy, and what could have been a ‘night of fright’ at the theatre was instead tolerably satisfactory.
It’s worth a visit for ardent JB Priestley fans, I suppose. And in the end, it’s not just a horror tale – for example, a blossoming relationship between Gladys Du Cane (Jessica Bay) and Roger Penderel (Matt Maltby) was rather charming. A valiant attempt at bringing a lesser known Priestley novel to the stage, it’s well-paced. It’s just not quite what it says on the tin.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Originally published as a novel in 1927, Benighted was the first real introduction to the world of a then unknown J.B. Priestley. Brought to the screen by James Whale as the 1932 classic The Old Dark House, it’s now presented in a World Premiere stage adaptation by Duncan Gates. Following the success of 2015’s smash-hit Arthur Miller Premiere No Villain, the Old Red Lion now teams up with Damien Tracey productions to bring you the ultimate creepy Christmas treat.
Lost in the heart of wildest Wales on a treacherously stormy night, where it seems the world itself is about to end, a group of travellers are left with no choice but to abandon their car and seek refuge in a ramshackle mansion house. Soaked, hungry and exhausted from their ordeal, their relief at finally being indoors rapidly slips away as it becomes apparent that their gracious hosts for the evening, the peculiar Femm Family (and indeed the house itself), may be far more treacherous than the raging elements they have fled.
A spine-chilling comedy that inspired The Rocky Horror Show and countless lesser imitators, Benighted is the original haunted house psychodrama brought to the stage for the very first time.
Post-Show Discussions (Free to ticket holders)
Tuesday 13th December – Join the adaptor of J.B. Priestley’s “Benighted” Duncan Gates in a post show discussion with Actor Paul Shelly.
A renowned actor of stage and screen, Paul has appeared at the RSC, The National, The Globs and In London’s West End and on Broadway. A huge Priestley fan, Paul was lucky enough to play the role of The Inspector in “An Inspector Calls” at the Garrick Theatre in the West End.
BY JB PRIESTLEY
STAGE ADAPTATION BY DUNCAN GATES
DIRECTED BY STEPHEN WHITSON
6th December 2016 – 7th January 2017