United Kingdom Torben Betts’s Murder in the Dark: Palace Theatre, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, 29.1.2024. (JPr)
I am not familiar with the work of Torben Betts who describes himself as (previously) a playwright of ‘dark comedies of social embarrassment with a bit of political commentary thrown in’. So, he considered Murder in the Dark as ‘something of a departure’ when ‘challenged’ by Alastair Whatley of Original Theatre ‘to write something that would, hopefully, both disturb and entertain audiences.’ Certainly, that it definitely does and having seen a number of related plays at the Palace Theatre (all reviewed on this site) – Dial M for Murder, Looking Good Dead, The Mirror Crack’d and The Women in Black – which were all good in their own way, Murder in the Dark intrigued and held my attention and, overall, was much, much better acted than any of those. (I have also seen the touring version of The Mousetrap which comes to the Palace Theatre soon: I don’t want to put anybody off if they haven’t seen it but it seemed put on by a local amdram group in comparison to the performance Murder in the Dark received, and for more about its current tour click here.)
Danny Sierra is the former frontman of Dance Party 5 whose heyday is long in the past and he even resorted to working on a building site until the press caught up with him. After eerie strains of Auld Lang Syne and Three Blind Mice along with a few fireworks we are led to understand it is New Year’s Eve when Sierra crashes his car in a blizzard. Danny is an alcoholic, possibly over the limit, and he’s certainly hungover. Everyone in the car with him is uninjured and the car is undriveable, so Danny finds himself and his extended dysfunctional family marooned in an isolated holiday cottage twenty miles from anywhere in the English countryside. They are all forced to accept the hospitality of the eccentric and religion obsessed Mrs Bateman who is the widow of a farmer who may or may not have died in mysterious circumstances and whose only friend appears to be her tractor! Her lines provide many of the laughs which help lighten an otherwise dark – literally mostly – tale.
Apart from urging you to see the play if you still have the chance I cannot reveal too much because the programme tells the audience to ‘Spread the word (but not the spoilers)’ since ‘Once you’ve experienced Murder in the Dark you’ll know all the many twists and turns new audiences have in store for them.’ That said it is described as a ‘thriller’ so you are right not to expect a love story. I will also caution that you will need to expect the unexpected (as in Tales of the Unexpected) and be prepared to have your brain engaged even more than in any whodunnit you might see. I’m not giving anything away letting you know Betts’s play is definitely not a whodunnit and anybody expecting things to be wrapped up neatly at the end – in Agatha Christie fashion – might be disappointed. No spoilers then and I will simply add that the title Murder in the Dark comes from Danny’s biggest hit with his band and that it’s important to remember how when rock music became popular in the US in the 1950s it was called ‘the devil’s music’.
The five are stranded without Wi-Fi, a phone line, any hope of continuing their journey (as everyone has somewhere else they should be), decent plumbing or anywhere particularly nice to sleep. A savage ‘puppy’ patrols the yard, and the electrics are dodgy, and the TV intermittently blurts out a familiar nursery rhyme.
Rebecca and Jake are the wife and son Danny abandoned to pursue his career; William is the resentful older brother who was a talented musician but Danny him left behind as his career took off and is now a disillusioned teacher; also there is Danny’s rather-too-young girlfriend, Sarah, preoccupied with getting out and about and making a name for herself (think Meghan Markle, sorry Duchess of Sussex). To make matters worse they are on their way back from the funeral of Danny and William’s mother.
So far, so The Mousetrap, but that it ain’t. Recriminations build as does Danny’s paranoia especially when he and Jake begin to see things as the jump scares ramp up. Murder in the Dark does not outstay its welcome and overall, the play lasts 90 minutes. Director Philip Franks allows the tension to build with an unerring sense of pace allied to some dramatic lighting effects from Paul Pyant and an atmospheric soundscape from Max Pappenheim. Designer Simon Kenny’s ingenious set allows for some suitably spooky occurrences, as well as smoothly allowing the action to move briefly ‘outside’ when necessary.
As suggested above the acting was first-rate. Although Tom Chambers as fallen pop star Danny could have been shown as rather more dissolute than we see him, his mental unravelling was all too believable. There is uniformly strong support from Owen Oakeshott as the resentful brother William, Rebecca Charles as a bitter ex-wife Rebecca (!), Jonny Green as an emotionally challenged son Jake, and finally Laura White as the age-inappropriate Sarah.
As good as they all are, it is Susie Blake’s Mrs Bateman you will remember more for her penchant for mushroom soup and so much more. She imbues her character with a near-perfect balance of humour and weirdness.
Tom Chambers – Danny Sierra
Susie Blake – Mrs Bateman
Rebecca Charles – Rebecca
Jonny Green – Jake
Owen Oakeshott – William
Laura White – Sarah
Writer – Torben Betts
Director – Philip Franks
Designer – Simon Kenny
Lighting designer – Paul Pyant
Sound designer and Composer – Max Pappenheim
Video designer – Tristan Shepherd
Movement – Sophie Vi