When Darkness Falls
Reviewed – 24th August 2021
“The creative elements of the show keep us spellbound, although the writing does come into its own as the fear factor increases”
It was a dark and stormy night…
The night in question is an indeterminate, though definitely stormy, one in 2017. John Blondel (Will Barton), a local teacher and historian, is preparing for a talk with a young author and paranormal expert as part of a weekly Vlog he is broadcasting for the island’s Historical Society. As part of his groundwork, he is researching the great storm of 1987; listening to soundbites from the news reports and the now famous failure of the Met Office to foresee the ill wind blowing. The significance of the comparatively light-hearted opening will become clear as the evening progresses, and darkens.
It is a well-known fact that part of the human condition is programmed to enjoy being scared – or rather ‘safely scared’. The proliferation of ghost stories in literature, film and stage bear witness to that. The effect is heightened when the source material is based on true events, as is James Milton’s and Paul Morrissey’s “When Darkness Falls”. We are promised five tales gleaned from Guernsey’s folklore and paranormal history. John Blondel is a self-confessed sceptic and unbeliever and regards the forthcoming interview with a foreboding flippancy and is initially more concerned with his supply of coffee and biscuits and the lack of punctuality of his guest. Will Barton captures the untidy mind of the character with an assured realism, suggesting that his pragmatism is not as solid as he would like to make out. More sinister is Alex Phelps’ unnamed speaker who coolly challenges his host’s disbelief.
The haunting tales the speaker relates bridge five centuries, covering witch hunts, burning, murder, ghoulish canines, revenge, piracy, the Nazi occupation; among others. There is a connecting thread but initially it struggles to snare the audience. Instead, the piece really picks up when the ghost story leaves the realms of anecdote and starts to filter into the action unfolding before us, and we realise that the two characters are existing within their own horror story. The script works best when it strays away from the ghost story and speculates on the human condition that gives rise to these stories. A brief discussion on mourning and melancholia, for instance, or the notion that history is not fact but perceived; therefore, everything is possible in our perception. Even ghosts.
The fantasy is sharpened by Daniel Higgott’s sound design and Bethany Gupwell’s lighting that create more of the magic than the dialogue – but all too sporadic to keep the hairs on our necks standing for long. John Bulleid’s magic and illusion design works wonders in tandem with Justin Williams’ beautifully crafted set that cleverly conjures up the state of John’s mind as well as the cluttered chaos that impels us to seek a supernatural cause beyond a crumbling rational.
The creative elements of the show keep us spellbound, although the writing does come into its own as the fear factor increases. We were promised five ghost stories – but in truth we have four. The fifth is the reality that delivers the stinging twist in the tale, and that is what ultimately bristles the hairs on our necks more than anything that goes bump in the night.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
When Darkness Falls
Park Theatre until 4th September
2021 Shows reviewed by Jonathan: