Review: WHEN DARKNESS FALLS, Salisbury Playhouse

A disappointing ghost play for the Halloween season

By: Sep. 28, 2022
Review: WHEN DARKNESS FALLS, Salisbury Playhouse

Do you believe in ghosts?

A third of Britons do, according to a recent survey, so you might be in good company if you are a serious spectral supporter.

In the two-hander When Darkness Falls - which premiered back in August, 2021 - history lecturer John Blondel (portrayed by excellent Peter Duncan, a household name from Blue Peter, along with roles in Birdsong, Barnum, and Me and My Girl), doesn't believe in wraithlike apparitions that waft about like melancholy mist and scare the bejeezus out of everyone.

He stays late one dark and stormy night (naturally) in his crumbling office (rusty old heaters, dusty storage boxes and a locker that wouldn't look out of place in the British Museum) on Guernsey. He's here to interview a paranormal researcher (known as The Speaker) for a podcast.

The Speaker (played by Daniel Rainford) is certain that spooky supernatural figures exist. He sets out to prove this - and change Blondel's anti-spectre views ­- by narrating five ghost stories based on real tales from the ancient island's past.

As the chronicles unfold, mainly in a too static way for my liking, Blondel is increasingly disturbed by various tropes. Things inexplicably tumble off shelves, lights flash on and off, and strange sounds emanate from nowhere. Blondel's mobile ringtone - the Psycho theme tune - startles the audience.

As The Speaker continues with gruesome unravellings of witches, black dogs, suicide, otherworldly visions and revenge, things pick up a bit when Blondel becomes more than a listener. He physically acts out various parts (the best is when he plays an old man fleeing on a horse), and The Speaker joins him as a German soldier in a particularly appalling account about a World War Two atrocity in a dark tunnel beneath a hospital.

We get caught up in a debate about folklore versus fact, and whether history is just "a collection of lies we've decided upon". Are ghost stories a projection of our fears? Who do you believe in the end?

In the second half, links are made between the local stories that bring us to the big reveal. Whether it feels all that big remains to be seen. I was hoping to be really frightened, but I wasn't. And the big reveal, was well, interesting, but not a sharp intake of breath moment that would make the evening's entertainment worthwhile.

Having said that, it's really tricky to pull off a proper ghost play. The Woman in Black, now celebrating three decades in the West End, has managed to do it. And surprise hit 2:22 A Ghost Story, which began life in the same year as When Darkness Falls, has already picked up a Laurence Olivier Award nomination and won Best New Play. However, these are the exceptions.

So, good on the production team for having a go at this spooky genre, but unfortunately it doesn't quite work. My companion says he closed his eyes at some point and the play got immeasurably better. "Perhaps it should be on radio, with all the sound effects and music," he suggests. He's spot on.

Also, it would probably help if the action was brought downstage. Everything seems to occur far away from the audience, which makes it difficult to engage with the characters. And speaking towards the wings rather than out to the audience is annoying, too. It's hard to pick up all the lines and we don't get that tingling sensation when you know an actor's looking directly at you.

Maybe an external voice might have been a good idea as well. Paul Morrissey directs the production, as well as having co-written it with James Milton. Sometimes, a fresh take can make all the difference when it comes to creating a truly believable show.

When the Darkness Falls is at Salisbury Playhouse until October 1, then touring.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith


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