REVIEW: Torben Betts’ Murder in the Dark at the Floral Pavilion

It’s tricky to talk about the new thriller from writer Torben Betts without giving the game away. Suffice to say, all is not as it seems.

The opening premise is straight outta Agatha: a handful of characters, each related to the central character of ageing boyband has-been Danny (Tom Chambers) in a largely dysfunctional way, are marooned together in an ancient outhouse in the depths of the countryside. A snowstorm rages, trains are cancelled, the lights are on the blink and, worse, there’s no WiFi.

The elderly farmer, Mrs Bateman (played with zest by Susie Blake), on whose farmstead they are sheltering, is at once dotty and all-knowing, sinister and saucy. Is she Marple or murderess?

At this point, the audience feels pretty comfortable with the plot progression, albeit possibly a tad disappointed. There’s more humour than most Agatha Christie but is that enough to sustain this modernised pastiche? But overlaying this framework, Betts introduces strains of the supernatural.

With the niftily designed set largely twilit and shrouded in mist, lights and TV flickering on and off erratically, it is easy to maintain an atmosphere of unease. But the sound effects, to my mind, are a little obvious and I jumped precisely once, just before the halfway curtain. At one spectral apparition, my companion chortled, which I doubt was the intention, although the play is not without comedy.

But at the second curtain-rise, the interest, if not necessarily the tension, ratchets up. Betts has led us down a blind Agatha alley, complete with three blind mice, (and nursery rhymes are never not sinister really) to turn the tables on the audience entirely. Without trying to give too much away, it becomes obvious that what we are watching is the anatomy of a booze-fuelled breakdown where Faust meets A Christmas Carol.

It feels like a play of two halves, with the first half perhaps a little too protracted. Yet the second half, whilst not terrifying, manages to be both unexpected but utterly inevitable. Which is good craft.

The characters are all credible and the cast are convincing. None more so than Susie Blake, as the applause last night for her attests.

Murder in the Dark is at The Floral Pavilion, New Brighton until Saturday, 16 March.

Image credit: Pamela Raith Photography

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