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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Murder In The Dark
Original Theatre Online  Spring 2024

The touring Original Theatre introduced this new play by Torben Betts in September 2023 and have now made a video version available online.

It is not a very good play, but if you're in a generous and non-judgemental mood it might catch and hold you.

The play is built on some surprise twists, and a Mousetrap-style note in the accompanying online programme begs us not to give away any spoilers, so I must be incomplete in my description.

We open with Danny, a middle-aged man with a younger girlfriend, being welcomed into a rundown farmhouse by the helpful woman farmer after a car crash on an icy road.

They are joined soon by his ex-wife, brother and son, all off them returning from his mother's funeral; and all, along with their hostess, are going to be snowed in at least for the night.

Backstories and family tensions quickly surface. A few decades back Danny abandoned the family to join a boy band that had a few years of success but now, broke and alcoholic, he hopes for reconciliation.

Meanwhile there are spooky things going on in the farmhouse, and the kindly host may not be all she seems. And here is where I have to be careful about spoilers.

Suffice to say that everything I just told you turns out to be not quite true, and nor does almost everything we see with our own eyes through much of the play.

A bit in the tradition of Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, Murder In The Dark is less a whodunnit than a who's-doing-what-to-whom-and-is-any-of-this-real.

Now, that sort of thing can be fun, but one of the big problems with Betts's play is that it is not merely in the same genre as other works, but almost totally derivative of other works.

Just about every scene, device and plot twist reminds you of something almost identical in a previous play by Anthony Shaffer, John Osborne, Arthur Miller, Alan Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard or someone else (not to mention films by Hitchcock, Clouzot, et al).

Any mental moment you spend thinking 'This reminds me of...' weakens the spell of the play – and there are a lot of such moments.

And when everything finally does get explained, you might find the explanation itself a bit of a dramatic cliché and a letdown.

As directed by Philip Franks, the cast led by Tom Chambers as Danny deserve a lot of credit for going through it all with straight faces, though they're not helped by the video version, whose close-ups sometimes show the strain.

I'm sure Susie Blake as the hostess is effective in the theatre, but onscreen her bug-eyed 'I am signalling that my character is weird' mode makes Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch Of The West seem like subtle underacting.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Murder In The Dark - Original Theatre Online 2024
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