The taut and tense thriller Night Must Fall is “simply a class apart”

Night Must Fall at the Devonshire Park Theatre
Night Must Fall at the Devonshire Park Theatre

Classic drama always passes the test of time. At the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, Emlyn Williams’ thriller Night Must Fall is as dark, brooding and terrifying as it was back in 1935.

There is precious little wrong with this production by the Original Theatre Company directed by Luke Sheppard. It is immaculately staged with all the meticulous details right. The play is long, and just once or twice the pace flagged slightly, but overall the theatrical experience is absorbing and genuinely frightening.

In concept terms, all the pieces fit. The words and the images, the spoken and the unspoken, are in careful balance. The set itself has an authentic and naturalistic feel. But glance above you; the beamed ceiling of the isolated country house is broken and jagged. Atmospheric lighting throws awful shadows one moment, and brightly pierces the darkness the next, and you know night must indeed fall on this ill-fated scene.

This is not a standard twists-and-turns thriller; you’d be best advised to leave your honed Miss Christie sleuthing skills in the foyer. It is short on cunningly planted clues, odd coincidences and improbable disguises. The plot, rather than lurching suddenly sideways, moves remorselessly forward, tightening its grip on the audience as it unfolds.

Not that there aren’t some shocking and suspenseful moments. But above all, Night Must Fall is character-driven and not plot-driven; and that gives excellent scope for proper acting from an accomplished cast. A superb Gwen Taylor is Mrs Bramson, wheelchair-bound but vitriolic and obsessive. Maid Dora (Melissa Vaughan) scuttles and frets amusingly and housekeeper Mrs Terence (Mandi Symonds) bumbles haplessly. Fine character playing all round.

Cousin Hubert, endearingly played by Alasdair Buchan, describes himself as an “all-round chap” of very little brain, while calm, assured nurse Libby (Anne Odeke) is merely visiting. So who shall stand up to fearsome Mrs Bransom? Companion and niece Olivia, finely judged by Niamh McGrady, has the brain but not, it seems, the courage; her crucial part will emerge later.

At first, it is all amusingly trivial. The script has the audience chuckling, but this is levity rather than outright comedy, and the veneer is about to crack. Daragh O’Malley’s enigmatic detective unexpectedly calls at the house, rather like Priestley’s Inspector, with news of dreadful events and a murderer at large.

And meanwhile, young local hotel worker Dan is insinuating himself into Mrs Bransom’s favour. Now the control is shifting, and the play becomes a study in terror. The layers of appearance and reality peel back, and Will Featherstone’s portrayal is brilliant: by turns charming and sinister. Like one of those plausible Hitchcock villains, Dan plays with our perceptions and emotions. All deference to Miss Christie’s many fans, but this is simply a class apart. It is theatre that plants one hand on your shoulder and the other around your throat. By Kevin Anderson.

With a fortnight’s run, Night Must Fall continues at the Devonshire Park Theatre until Saturday September 3.