Almost 90 years after it was originally written, J. B. Priestley’s Benighted descends on London this winter for its world stage premiere. This story, adapted from the original novel, inspired countless other tales of stranded travellers, most notably The Rocky Horror Show and set a precedent for many B-movies. Nestled in the suitably shadowy attic space of the Old Red Lion Theatre, this piece combines astute social commentary, comedy that is delightfully slapstick and cartoonish and a theatrical atmosphere of encroaching dread and terror.
On a cold and blustery night, a trio of travellers are stranded somewhere in rural Wales when their car breaks down. Desperate to escape the building storm Philip Waverton, along with his wife Margaret and friend Roger Penderel, seek shelter in a nearby mansion. The house belongs to siblings Horace Femm, a distracted and innately unsettling old man, and Rebecca Femm, a serious and overly repentant religious zealot. As the night wears on the group is joined by Gladys Du Cane and William Porterhouse, a stage performer and wealthy businessman respectively, who have also been caught in the downpour. While the reluctant hosts shuffle ominously through the building’s many rooms, their guests get to know one another.
This stage adaptation of Benighted is a thundering success. Duncan Gates’ script is both fantastically poetic and believably conversational; no mean feat by any stretch of the imagination. The exploration of the human psyche and our individual perceptions of the world is mirrored beautifully by Gregor Donnelly’s bleak and warped set. With doors leading to shadowy corridors and uneven, multifaceted surfaces that the characters must manoeuvre, we are presented with an atmosphere of absolute discomfort.
The cast is quite simply spectacular, their shared energy spurring the plot forward with unending momentum. There is no weak link here but special mention must be made for Harrie Hayes who, as Margeret Waverton, is wholly fascinating to watch. Her calm stillness and pensive delivery anchor the play’s thought-provoking questions around what makes a life worth living. Ross Forder, in the dual role of William Porterhouse and Rebecca Femm, elegantly manages to keep the characters separate without turning them into caricatures. The majority of the comedy comes from Michael Sadler as Horace. His distant expressions and absent behaviour makes his thoroughly alarming comments about the house utterly farcical. One of the most successful aspects of Benighted is the inclusion of subtle but continuous sound effects such as the ticking of a grandfather clock or the steady patter of rain. Beautifully orchestrating the play’s dialogue, these noises are simultaneously calming and unsettling and hone our attentions on the mood in each scene.
Amidst the swirl of pantomimes this winter, Benighted brings a refreshing change in atmosphere to London’s theatre scene. Gothic in style but timeless in delivery, this adaptation of J. B. Priestley’s work has truly set the bar for the inevitable reinventions to come in the future. A real spooky treat.
Reviewed by Alex Foott
Photo: Chris Gardner
BENIGHTED plays at the Old Red Lion until 7 January 2017