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Dated 4th October 2014  

By David Slater, NODA NW

Director

James Claxton

NODA Review - Night Must Fall

Emlyn Williams' psychological thriller 'Night Must Fall' is seen very rarely these days so it came as a pleasant change to attend this production of a play from the 1930s which has - along with many others like it - fallen out of favour with amateur societies and professional companies alike. The always professional standard of every previous presentation from the team at Todmorden, had me settling into my seat with great expectations.

The audience may have been forgiven if they were expecting an 'Agatha Christie'-type drawing room whodunit as the play (after an initial prologue where the Lord Chief Justice sums up the case we are about to witness) opened up onto a superb set, showing the sitting room of Mrs Bramson's bungalow with all the familiar faces from the world of detective fiction present: the wheelchair-bound grande dame; the attendant nurse; the frumpy niece; the monocled twit, complete with plus-fours; the dozy housemaid; the no-nonsense cook... But those of us expecting a dead body by the end of Act One and the appearance of a doughty police inspector to sort it all out as Act Two opened (etc...) couldn't have been more wrong, as this psychological thriller is a play which gives us a rich psychodrama rather than the more usual murder puzzle. Or at least, it should...

I have to admit to having some misgivings as to the direction the production would go in when I read in the programme that it was billed as a 'camp but haunting psychological thriller', with 'witty, bitchy and sharp' dialogue. Bracing myself for a very different production than usual, along the lines of 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?' - i.e. over-ripe, camp, bitchy and hysterically overdone - I was actually rather looking forward to an entertaining send-up but instead, was faced with a production which fell rather flatly between two stools: the rather unfortunate combination of a comedy with few laughs and a thriller with no thrills.

At the centre of the piece is the character of Dan, the psychopath whose easy charm beguiles the household - especially Mrs Bramson - despite his having been responsible for the brutal murder and dismemberment of a woman whose head he has safely stowed away in a hatbox and, as the judge informed us in the prologue, he'll kill again before the end of the third act. Played by Dan Clay - a talented and capable performer and one of the stalwarts of the Hippodrome stage - in this production, he seemed to have been asked to breeze around the set and chirrup through his dialogue like a cut-price Max Miller: the strange fascination the character has for the female members of the household was therefore very difficult to understand. It also made the flashes of inner torment and mental anguish which Dan displays when his mask drops seem like they had been imported from another play altogether, so defiantly at odds were they with the feel of the rest of the production.

As I understood it, Olivia (Natasha Priestly) goes some way towards shielding Dan from the police due to her being drawn to him - rather like Mrs Bramson - and his peculiar charms, but I got no sense of this from the drama as it unfolded and nor, if I'm being completely honest, did I really get to grips with any of the characterisations in the production, certainly not as an ensemble cast interacting with each other and inhabiting the same play. Richard Holley as Hubert did his best as the Wooster-ish stereotype; Liv Bellamy-Brown gave a superb performance as the cantankerous cook, Mrs Terence; Brenda Bell was faultless in the role of Mrs Bramson; Dan Clay as Dan had a mastery over the character which couldn't have been bettered. The only problem was that none of the characters meshed with either each other or seemed to fit in with the directorial vision: was this a black comedy along the lines of 'Entertaining Mr Sloane' (far too much dialogue was delivered as if it had been written by Joe Orton) or a thriller exploring the way a smiling psychopath inveigles his way into the Bramson household? Was it both, or neither, or somewhere in between the two? Had I missed something in the original play which James Claxton had illuminated for me? Had I failed to appreciate the subtle nuances of this production? I'm willing to plead guilty to any of those charges but I'm afraid that the whole evening left me mainly baffled, irritated and confused. Far too many things simply didn't stack up: it didn't go nearly far enough to pass as a comedy - or a sarcastic pastiche - and threw away any hopes of working as either a thoughtful drama, or a fraught and hysterical melodrama. Again however, perhaps it was just me. Is it that the play is so ridiculous to today's audiences, so wildly unbelievable and so dated in its creaky melodramatics, too amateurish in its attempts to dissect a troubled mind or just out of kilter with modern sensibilities and can therefore only be treated as a peculiar hangover from another age? It's certainly true that the play comes across as a strange beast on the page but I had issues with quite a few of the decisions taken to try to alleviate some of the play's potential shortcomings: I won't go into them here for fear of coming across as a 'know it all' font of all knowledge (which I certainly am not!) however.

That said, the performances from everyone on stage were of the quality we have come to expect from a production at the Hippodrome - the easy professional manner from everyone concerned was as always a pleasure to behold. The set was simply fantastic and wouldn't have been out of place in the West End, although I did feel that the lighting could have added a little more 'light and shade' - if you'll pardon the expression - to the staging (it was hard to differentiate between the bright autumnal sunshine of the morning light as described by the characters on stage from the arty, shadowy half-light which dominated throughout.) As for the peculiar electro acoustic squeals which sounded out into the auditorium towards the end of the second act, the less said the better.

I have to admit to being rather confused as the curtain fell on this production. I'm fairly sure I didn't really connect with the director's vision or his treatment of the play: I just didn't 'get it'. I'm quite willing to accept this as a fault on my part but it does make penning a reasoned and balanced show report without coming across as a cantankerous old stick in the mud quite difficult! There were some great things in this production: unfortunately for me, they really didn't come together to make for an effective whole.

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