Without warning, a streak of lightning cuts the theatre into a pitch-black blank. Thunder rumbles overhead and the audience blinks into the suspended darkness. Benighted begins in thrillingly apt fashion – and the theatrics are only just warming up.
This psychological horror story by J.B. Priestley took to the screen as James Whale’s 1932 classic The Old Dark House, but now has its spine-chilling plot bought to the stage. So effective is Duncan Gates’ adaptation, I had to set aside my wine within minutes of it starting, for fear of spilling yet more onto my lap – a testament to its brilliant eeriness.
A play set in middle-of-nowhere Welsh wilderness, I had come along to The Old Red Lion Theatre with a hint of sentimentality as a girl born and bred in South Wales. Eighty minutes later I hurried out, however, with a sense of sheer relief at being far from Priestley’s Wales and its a cauldron of terror, despair and isolation.
When Mr and Mrs Waverton and their friend Roger Penderel find themselves lost along a flooded, crumbling road at night, they seek refuge at a nearby hilltop house. A sinister butler lets them in, after some resistance, but it swiftly becomes apparent that very little sleep will be had tonight. Rather, their ‘refuge’ – hosted (of sorts) by the creepy Femm siblings – is the setting for a very, very wakeful nightmare.
The cast are stunningly funny and uncanny in turn. Matt Maltby is particularly good as the haunted figure Penderel, whose wartime sufferings have never left him. A poignant connection with Gladys Du Cane, one of two other refuge-seekers, reveals the traumas playing on a constant loop in this veteran’s mind.
Of course, Priestley’s own real-life horror stories from World War I (which at one point saw him buried alive by a trench-mortar) are ringing loud and clear before our eyes. Though the Femms try to hide it, a very tangible result of the war is plaguing this creaky, unsettling Welsh house. Attempts to thwart this plague are in vain – but often hilarious.
It comes as no surprise that this story was the inspiration behind The Rocky Horror Show. The plot certainly makes for a highly entertaining, frenzied piece of theatre, directed expertly by Stephen Whitson here in Islington. Gates’ dialogue jumps from marital bickering to existential soliloquies, from drunken rages to heartfelt declarations of love: Benighted is, at its core, a vividly human production.
The bizarre patriarch of the haunted home, Horace Femm (Michael Sadler) is a pitch-perfect touchstone for Benighted’s gripping juxtaposition of horror and comedy. Sadler delivers lines with such an eccentric tone that it’s bound to tickle any audience. The cast’s few minor stutters are certain to be ironed out in the course of the run, leaving a surefooted (and greatly enjoyable) production.
The play ends as it began – with an almighty bang. This is a tardis of a production, much bigger than first appearances might suggest. The modest stage, tucked on the first-floor of a pub, gives rise to a potent mix of philosophical musings and a bit of simple, raucous fun. In its peculiar way, it’s sure to warm the cockles on a wintry night.
Benighted runs at the Old Red Lion until 7th January 2017. Click here for more details.
*A tardis of a production: Sophie Baggott reviews Duncan Gates’ adaptation of Benighted at the Old Red Lion.