At first glance, Michael Lesslie’s And Then The Dark, directed by Peter Rowe at the New Wolsey Theatre, seems promising. Foxton’s elaborate and naturalistic set is an ideal frame for what is billed as a “psychological thriller” with supernatural undertones. However, from the moment the story starts, it’s clear that this piece needs work and a major re-write.
Lesslie’s rambling mess of a script goes nowhere and everywhere and is crammed with contrivances that make no sense in the final analysis. It’s a familiar problem with stage chillers – how to make it actually ‘chilling’ and side-step ‘risible’ completely. When the comedy policeman shows up at the dénouement, determines the cause of death, works out whodunit, clears the murder scene (don’t worry about the niceties of calling an ambulance), and arrests the perpetrator all in under five minutes, disbelief doesn’t need to be suspended so much as hung, drawn and quartered.
Edward lives alone in a huge Georgian pile, on the upper floor of which his wife and son disappeared in a suspicious fire seven years exactly before the dark and stormy night on which the action takes place. There’s a compelling set-up right there, with plenty of potential for spooky goings-on. However, Lesslie has over-egged this particular pudding with meandering sub-texts about psychotic doctors and boardroom double-dealings that just bog it down unnecessarily.
Paul Ansdell’s comically melodramatic Edward aside, much of the dialogue – especially that given to angst-ridden teenager Theo (Jonny Weldon) - is just bad. When a fifteen-year-old spouts the words of a thirty-something and it’s not naturally a part of his character, you know something’s gone wrong somewhere. In fairness, Weldon’s performance is a competent and confident one, it’s just the lines he’s been given to deliver that lets things down.
Liza Sadovy gives a stellar performance as Edward’s cancer-stricken sister-in-law, Ruth, particularly in the second act; however, her stage time is relatively brief and it’s almost as though a light goes out on the production whenever she’s not there.
Rowe keeps the pace up for the most part and Michael Rippeth’s lighting design is evocative, despite a long total blackout in the final minutes that doesn’t really work. Much has been made of the involvement of illusion consultant Darren Lang in the project but it’s difficult to see where this level of expertise has been used. Lights flicker wildly and there’s an impressive projected train effect but, beyond that, nothing that a competent stage crew couldn’t have come up with.
And Then The Dark is a new work and, therefore, open to development. The first things to be looked at are story structure and dialogue. Once those shortcomings are addressed, given such detailed aesthetic treatment proffered by the New Wolsey’s team, it might - just might - have a future.