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When Darkness Falls

by on 10 February 2023

Ghost of a Chance

When Darkness Falls

by James Milton and Paul Morrissey

Paul Morrissey Productions at Richmond Theatre until 11th February, then on tour until 29th April

Review by Steve Mackrell

When Darkness Falls is a relatively new play, by James Milton and Paul Morrissey, which opened at the Park Theatre (Finsbury Park) in 2021, followed by a short regional tour in autumn 2022, and has now turned up at the Richmond Theatre. 

In essence, this is a ghost story, and for maximum enjoyment you really need to be an aficionado of horror plays in the style of The Woman in Black.  Otherwise, if you don’t like plays about supernatural activity and the shock of things that go bump in the night, then this is probably not for you. 

The play is set in Guernsey, rather surprisingly for horror, although it transpires that in fact the island is a hot bed of folklore with many legends and superstitions of the occult.  The play, which is a two-hander, depicts a meeting between John Blondel (played by Tony Timberlake), who runs Guernsey’s historical society, and a visitor (played by Thomas Dennis), who is researching paranormal activities.  Together they have arranged to record a series of podcasts about local folklore and tales of ghostly apparitions given Guernsey’s rich tradition of spooks and ghouls. 

In essence, the play is simply an exercise in storytelling with the visiting researcher describing a series of gruesome atrocities, real or imagined, that have occurred on the island over previous centuries.  In all four separate stories, two either side of the interval.  The earlier stories refer to witchcraft and crimes of passion from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and, following the interval, a story of atrocities in the Second World War (Guernsey being occupied by German forces) culminating in a story about some sinister events during the great storm of 1987. 

The atmosphere for these ghost stories is set from the beginning, as the audience files into the auditorium, audio tales of ghosts and witchcraft from Guernsey’s past.  The play, which is continuous in time, is set in the historian’s gritty office, cluttered with technology, old filing cabinets, storage boxes and some wonderfully grimy radiators.

The acting was, without doubt, first rate.  Tony Timberlake’s sceptical historian (“I deal with facts.”) captured his realistic no-nonsense reaction on hearing his visitor’s tales of the paranormal – then, at times, allowing us to see glimpses of his perhaps increasing willingness to believe.  The more interesting scenes came when his character was drawn into the storytelling, to the extent that he became part of the story, such as driving an imaginary horse and buggy and acting as a German soldier.  

The researcher and storyteller, played by Thomas Dennis, who is a “believer” in the paranormal, engaged our interest by telling his stories with enthusiasm and conviction.  He conveyed a strong sense of drama, stoking the intensity of his tales, which then fed into our own fears and insecurities.  It was a performance that grabbed the attention, particularly important when you have to deliver four lengthy and, some could argue, rather dull stories.  However, the pace of the play remained brisk, with audience attention maintained, especially when elements of the old stories began to infiltrate into the present. 

As well as the four separate stories which underpin the play, the script also contains some thought-provoking discussions between the historian and the researcher.  Particularly interesting were their respective thoughts on history (“History is a set of lies agreed upon”) and on some of the theories for the paranormal, such as telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance and seeing the future through visions or dreams.  The dialogue also veered into other interesting ghostly explanations such as vivid imaginations, drug use or seeing images caused by Alzheimer’s.  Even the motives for being a ghost were touched upon, such as retribution, but there were also some moments of humour to bring lighter relief.

So, scary stuff indeed, but in the ghost-story genre, it’s usually the quality of the special effects that count.  And here, while there was no unique scary moment, there was the full gamut of effects with filing cabinets mysteriously opening, crockery falling off kitchen units and chairs moving by themselves.  The lighting was also effective, with lights frequently switching on and off and, of course, evocative sound effects like the crackling of fire and the cry of a new born baby – plus various sudden loud bangs and thunder claps – all clever stage trickery to add to the atmosphere.

However, by the time we get to the fourth unconnected story, supernatural fatigue was beginning to set in, although the audience seemed to remain engaged and indeed, at the end, gave the two actors a deserved and, indeed, rapturous applause.  Meanwhile, I found myself wondering whether these harrowing “tall stories” were man-made, rather than the result of any supernatural force.  After all, the evil that lies within man is probably the cause of these events, not the paranormal doings of ghosts and ghoulies.   On the other hand, as the play would argue, I could be wrong.

Steve Mackrell, February 2023

Photography by Pamela Raith Photography

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