There really aren’t enough ghost stories on stage. It’s something that always surprises me considering there seems to be an appetite for them, as proved by the full house tonight at Richmond Theatre for When Darkness Falls. It certainly provides a classic ghost story – four of them in fact, although as you’d suspect, there is a connection between all.
The speaker (Thomas Dennis) has been invited by John (Tony Timberlake) to be a guest on the brand-new Guernsey Historical Society’s podcast. As John himself states in his podcast introduction, ghost stories may seem an odd choice for a historical society, but then again maybe not so odd, because don’t all good ghost stories have a connection with the past?
The podcast as a framing device works well in giving a reason for the stories to be told, but it also threatens to derail the play early on. Because podcasts are a static affair, for some time it’s just people sitting and talking. Whilst Paul Morrissey’s directing does allow for both actors to leave their seats and move around the spacious set, the first half feels at times as if too much is described into a microphone rather than witnessed. Things improve after the interval, the podcast recording almost seemingly forgotten. Instead, as The Speaker tells his final tales the pair transform into the characters within them, allowing for a much more visual treat. And as will not come as a surprise, the fourth story nicely delivers a climactic conclusion as the true identity of The Speaker is revealed. Except this is not the final twist, so giving this a rather interesting final debating point. It adds another layer for consideration.
As you’d expect, there are plenty of flickering lights and eerie background sound to ratchet up the tension, and whilst a sudden thunder clap timed just right is an easy (and arguably lazy) way to cause a jump, sometimes these are all that is needed. Some additional simple staging effects allow for just that little extra tension to grow amongst the audience.
But ultimately all good ghost stories depend on their storyteller, and Dennis’ delivery here is absolute perfection. He is at one moment excitable, wanting to talk, whilst the next he is elusive, clearly not quite ready to reveal everything. It’s clear there is more to him than we are first led to believe. Timberlake’s John though leaves me uncertain. His fierce announcements of being a non-believer seem at odds with his first-half behaviour. He goes from non-believer to transfixed and fearful, then back again, with the result that his character is somewhat confusing to understand. Maybe it’s intentional – and come the end there are reasons to suspect this – but it makes for an imbalanced watch for half the play and feels contradictory to the story’s demands for his character at those points.
What makes When Darkness Fall that bit more enjoyable are some fine moments of debate within the script. The fact John is a historian allows for argument about history simply being “a set of lies agreed upon”, questioning why ghost stories should be treated any differently. As The Speaker points out, how can you know history really happened, as much like the tales he is telling it is just tales passed down through the generations?
When Darkness Falls has enough to please those of us who lament the lack of good ghost stories on stage. The tension perhaps doesn’t build as much as it might, but the final payoff, as John’s eyes are opened to a rather interesting realisation, makes for a clever twist that leaves plenty to ponder about the human mind.
Written by: Paul Morrissey and James Milton
Directed by: Paul Morrissey
Set design by: Justin Williams
Lighting design by: Bethany Gupwell
Sound design by: Ollie Durrant
When Darkness Falls tours the UK until 29 April 2023. Further information with dates and locations can be found on the show’s website here.