Darker Shores, Hampstead Theatre

Tuesday 8th December 2009

Darker Shores. Photo: Robert Day
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What’s the appeal of the traditional ghost story? Is it the knowledge that while the victims of the tale quake in their boots, you are perfectly safe and grinning like the Cheshire Cat? Or is it because the supernatural gives us a chance to journey into the weird and fearsome corners of our psyche, all the time kidding ourselves that we are just normal human beings? In Michael Punter’s new Victorian ghost story, Darker Shores, which opened tonight at the Hampstead Theatre, all the rooms of the haunted house story get an airing.

It is Christmas 1875, and the setting is Sea House, a suitably isolated Victorian pile on a suitably desolate stretch of the Sussex coast. As Professor Gabriel Stokes rents a room here, he soon finds that his idea of getting away from the hurly-burly of city life is compromised by some pretty odd happenings, to wit, things that go bump very loudly in the night. So he asks an American spiritualist, Tom Beauregard, for help, and together the two men explore the spook-infested house.

Stokes is a man on a mission. Not only is he a natural scientist, he is also a Christian, and his motive for seasonal seclusion is to write an anti-Darwinian polemic. Being a believer in a benign deity, he’s okay about the Immaculate Conception, but not so keen on window-rattling presences. When Beauregard suggests that they hold a séance — to contact the other side, the darker shores of the play’s title — it’s soon time for a showdown with the spirit world.

Cue some spooky seasonal fun, with good belly laughs punctuating the fears and the frights. This genuinely chilling production, which stars Julian Rhind-Tutt as Beauregard and Tom Goodman-Hill, who took over the role of Stokes when Mark Gatiss had to pull out for family reasons, is satisfyingly creepy. Directed by Anthony Clark, this is one of those plays that relies heavily on the techies, so it’s hats off to Paul Farnsworth’s black-curtained set, Tim Mitchell’s atmospheric lighting and Thomas Gary’s trippy projections.

Added to this enjoyable box of tricks, Punter’s text offers a handful of theatrical devices, from a beguiling mix of narration and action to discussion of arcane Victorian subjects such as the question of whether Adam had an umbilical cord. If God made him, then who was his mother? Other themes involve a satire on spiritual fakery and the clash between the New and Old Worlds. Add a dash of the fad for golfing, a touch of Alice in Wonderland, plus an old and trusty servant, and this ghostly tale begins to shiver. Happy haunting…

Goodman-Hill is thoroughly convincing as the Victorian stuffed shirt whose personal experience of loss makes him both credulous and desirous of easeful death, while Rhind-Tutt has fun with an earie Southern drawl and a big taste for bourbon. Likewise, Pamela Miles as the tight-lipped old retainer and Vinette Robinson as the young skivvy help to give depth to the evening. It’s all very droll, very creepy and very seasonal.

This review first appeared on The Arts Desk 

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