When Darkness Falls – from Guernsey to Richmond Theatre

“There isn’t an actor who does not love the Richmond Theatre”, starts the chapter on tonight’s venue in the highly recommended doorstopper London’s Great Theatres by Simon Callow and Derry Moore. Pre-lockdown intensive renovations went ahead at this beauty on Richmond Green. A blue plaque refers to theatre architect legend Frank Matcham. Insisting that we are technically already in Surrey, not London, would be pedantic, and I am glad I have a reason to return to Richmond Theatre – having seen George Orwell’s 1984 here (before it transferred to the West End) stuck with me as one of the most intense theatre visits. This time we are in the stalls and while row J sounds far away, the seats in the auditorium allow an excellent view for When Darkness Falls, a mystery thriller co-written by historian James Milton and director Paul Morrissey.

Even Scarlett O’Hara walked the steps of Richmond Theatre, easily London’s most beautiful façade

Set on the Channel Islands, we learn in four ghost stories about the paranormal and factual history of Guernsey, of witch burns in the middle ages, of threatening black dogs, pixies and far more of occupying sadistic Nazis in the 1940s. Radio snippets of Michael Fish’s legendary wrong weather forecast ominously refer to Britain’s disastrous Great Storm in autumn 1987. After all, a dispute is laid out when a local history podcaster (Tony Timberlake) asks a guest (Thomas Dennis) for a brief overview on the islands’ folklore: If history is a bunch of lies the collective has agreed on, does that make the likelihood of ghosts existing more factual? Cleverly positioned hints at the venue’s bar and stunning foyer support both sides. Not giving away too much here, let’s agree that alcohol should never be the answer to numb away suspicions of any kind.

I can’t stop thinking that When Darkness Falls would work on a much smaller stage as well

Loud thunder, shocking light effects not for the fainthearted and some assumed poltergeist activity contribute to the horror, especially in the first half: Amidst the realistically detailed, yet purposefully dull stage design, lots of attention is given to the flickering and hum of the fluorescent kitchen light, which impresses in particular tonight’s theatre buddy, a sound designer himself.

Advice for venues hosting the upcoming tour stops of When Darkness Falls: When hosting a play living of building up suspense through silence, don’t sell sweets in noisy plastic wrapping. And please ask the audience before the show to put their phones on mute. Otherwise, all efforts are easily swept away and that is not fair to the script, the cast and every other more considerate audience member.

Who paid attention on arrival?

**** out of 5 stars

Written by James Milton and Paul Morrissey who is also the director.

When Darkness Falls kicked off its tour in Richmond Theatre until 11 February. The national tour continues until the end of April, also with a tour stop at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley later this Spring.

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