by Michael Punter.
Hampstead Theatre Eton Avenue NW3 3EU To 16 January 2010.
Mon-Fri & 9, 16 Jan 7.30pm 12, 19, 26 Dec, 2 Jan 8pm.
Mat 12, 19, 24, 26 31 Dec, 2 Jan 4pm, 9, 16 Jan 3pm, 6, 13 Jan 2.30pm.
no performance 25 Dec, 1 Jan.
no evening performance 24, 31 Dec.
Audio-described 9 Jan 3pm.
Captioned 12 Jan.
Post-show discussion 12 Jan
Runs 2hr 15min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7722 9301.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 7 December.
Dark nights of a soul don’t require laughter.
Perhaps it’s the time of year. Or a distaste for direct emotion except as a source of laughter. Hampstead’s First Night audience certainly contained those who found plentiful comedy in Michael Punter’s ghostly play.
But too much laughter eviscerates Punter’s braver attempt to evoke the chilly East Anglian coast in 1875, when science and progress mixed with fantasy and fairy-photographs, spiritualist séances with Darwinian deconstruction of the Christian world-view.
As Professor Gabriel Stokes shuts himself away to denounce Darwin, while loaded with personal griefs, Punter gives his story a wide scope but also introduces a thematic concreteness at odds with the Jamesian period chiller – MR James’ clerics and academics or Henry’s suggestive Turn of the Screw, let alone their one successful modern pastiche, The Woman in Black. All these build suspensefully towards a climactic horror that finally appears, yet maintains an intriguing mystery.
It’s easy now to laugh at the Professor, as at Ibsen’s Pastor Manders in a different type of Ghosts story. But if his beliefs are accepted as those of a rational, intelligent Victorian, the maelstrom of hauntings amidst which he finds himself, the mix of rational explanations and supernatural events, gain in dramatic tension, exploring two contradictory sides of human nature.
Anthony Clark’s production plays the recurring theatricality whole-heartedly, without disguising that Punter doesn’t wholly integrate the visceral shocks with his philosophical content. A danger signal is the amount of exposition trailing at the end. And while Paul Farnsworth’s black, often nocturnal, settings, with huge side staircases and central window, loom ominously, and allow changes of location, they can overwhelm the characters.
Taking over late in rehearsals, Tom Goodman-Hill as Stokes has admirable firmness if not, yet, the underlying vulnerability to keep the character this side of parodying Victorian uprightness. And Julian Rhind-Tutt’s Deep South Tom loses the balance of belief and uncertainty under a welter of arm-waving and expostulation.
It’s the women who bring conviction; Pamela Miles earnest and insistent in the apparently ungrateful role of housekeeper, and Vinette Robinson as the mulatto servant, an outsider who brings emotional truth to the search for a home.
Tom Beauregard: Julian Rhind-Tutt.
Professor Gabriel Stokes: Tom Goodman-Hill.
Mrs Hinchcliffe: Pamela Miles.
Florence Kennedy: Vinette Robinson.
Director: Anthony Clark.
Designer: Paul Farnsworth.
Lighting: Tim Mitchell.
Sound: Edward Lewis.
Video/Projection: Thomas Gray for The Gray Circle.
Illusionists: Ben Hart, Darren Lang.
Special Effect: Oliver Izod.
Dialect coach: Penny Dyer.
Assistant director: Drrew Mulligan.