Murder in The Dark ★★

Torben Betts’ Murder in The Dark poses the scary question: what happens when the lights go out?

There’s something about scary stories getting the adrenaline pumping that is multiplied when performed in front of a group of people sitting, listening in the dark. As such, psychological thrillers with a supernatural flavour have proved theatrical catnip to audiences in recent years. Established hits such as The Woman in Black and 2:22 A Ghost Story have been joined by new works like Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor and When Darkness Falls proving our desire for scares remains as strong as ever. 

Murder In The Dark by Torben Betts is the latest entry in the genre. A self-proclaimed “spine-chilling ghost story, turned psychological thriller”, it sees Danny Sierra (Tom Chambers) arriving with his troubled extended family at an isolated farmhouse on New Year’s Eve after crashing his car. The seemingly genial but eccentric Mrs Bateman (Susie Blake) welcomes this unexpected motley crew of Danny’s ex-wife (Rebecca Charles), resentful son (Jonny Green), unhappy brother (Owen Oakeshott) and bored younger girlfriend (Laura White). With the local trains not running because of a storm, no Wi-Fi signal and twenty miles to the nearest town, the stage is set for some spooky goings-on.

Images by Pamela Raith

Sad to report, Murder In The Dark will not be joining the pantheon of classic chillers. The story is weighed down by too heavy a focus on familial dysfunction. Brought together for the funeral of Danny’s mother, we are soon delving into such unoriginal topics as Danny’s neglectful parenting, Danny’s alcoholism, Danny’s mid-life crisis indecision between ex-wife and younger girlfriend, Danny’s diminishing fame (he was a popstar in a band Dance Party 5), Danny’s drink-driving etc. While it’s meant to build up a picture of Danny’s failure to take responsibility for anything in his life, it is done with such a lack of subtlety you feel you are being bludgeoned over and over. 

There’s a LOT going on and little of it is spooky. None of the family are likeable or even feel real. Instead of tension, you get talking. And lots of it. The dialogue sounds as if it has been written by an AI ScriptBot that has a level of proficiency on a par with Kate Middleton’s Photoshopping skills. You can’t really blame the cast when they are given leaden lines such as “Your career’s dead so you are trying to murder mine” or “Mother said if we were bad, she’d throw us down the well”. 

Tom Chambers is a decent performer. Give him a light, frothy role like Jerry Travers in Top Hat and he absolutely sparkles. Here, in a role that piles angst upon self-pity, his natural charisma gets hidden under a very surface performance of gurns and grimaces. There’s nothing in how his character is written that allows the audience to warm to him in any way – which, in turn, means we don’t know who we are meant to be rooting for or care about. 

Against the domestic angst, the creepy scenes ironically offer some light relief. Writer Betts offers little creativity or imagination in assembling his scares. A spooky nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice is lifted wholesale from Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. A creepy entrance is remarkably similar to the horror film The Ring. A creaking door homages that of The Woman In Black albeit without the same terrifying conclusion. The desperation to spook the audience results in a jump scare at the end of the first Act that while effective, makes little sense in the context of the show’s own narrative. 

Theatrical shows that excel in the scary supernatural genre do so by implication, by suggestion and when the terror is ratcheted up enough, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpses of the horror. Murder In The Dark fails to understand the mechanics of such storytelling. SPOILER AHEAD! The ghostly apparition of a girl in a ballet costume is reportedly sighted in the outside toilet. After an admittedly tense exploration fails to find anything, the family goes back indoors. The set of the outside toilet pulls back to reveal the intended spooky sight of the ballerina with a mask on. But it’s not a glimpse. She wanders across the stage looking for all the world like The Unknown from the Glasgow’s infamous Willy’s Chocolate Experience. To add insult to injury, when the ghostly ballerina exits by getting into the well, in a moment of pure bathos, the well audibly squeaks as it moves back into the wall. 

The only true terror comes with Chekhov’s guitar on the wall in that moment of realisation that yes, Danny and his brother are going to take it off the wall and sing his pop hit, titled – you guessed it – “Murder in the Dark”. Reader, at this point, murder was indeed on my mind. 

The show’s saving grace comes courtesy of Susie Blake’s inspired performance as the mysterious Mrs Bateman. One of this country’s most gift comedic actor, Blake finds comedy diamonds in the dust. Flirting with Danny, it’s the precision of her pause between “If only I were a few years younger” and “and slightly less arthritic” that shows a master at work. The energy she brings to the piece is conspicuous by its absence when she is not onstage. While the role requires several gear changes, Blake seamlessly shifts between funny and fearful, silly and sinister and rightfully earns the warm audience response during the bows. 

Original Theatre have produced some incredible productions. In fact, their 5-star adaptation of The Mirror Crack’d (coincidentally starring Susie Blake) was thick with the sustained theatrical tension that is so missing here. So it’s baffling why Murder in The Dark is such a misfire. The publicity promised the show will “have you on the edge of your seats” but many will be slumped in them by the end. What should be a rollercoaster of scares sadly emerges as a risible misery-go-round. 

Murder in the dark? Deadly in every sense – ★★ 2 stars

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