Review: A mesmerising play which is not short of thrills

The Nightmare Room at Devonshire Park Theatre SUS-180621-145357001
The Nightmare Room at Devonshire Park Theatre SUS-180621-145357001

Imagination, reality and the blurred line between: it can become a nightmare, and at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, you may yourself enveloped in The Nightmare Room.

The show actually debuts in Eastbourne this week, ahead of a lengthy national tour. Director and designer John Goodrum has taken the kernel of an old Arthur Conan Doyle story and, with his TABS production company, has given it a very modern context – and a slightly surreal setting which teases the audience into that space where you are never sure what to believe.

The space itself is striking and sometimes truly blinding: a single angled set in pure white, sterile and clinical, with just a table and two chairs. Minimalist, in theatre, sometimes comes through expedience – not to say budget constraints – but here, Goodrum is giving his actors a creative space, and the story itself takes centre stage.

The play is essentially a two-hander, with the disembodied voice of John Goodrum adding a third character. Catherine and Helen, as we shall discover, are rivals for the same man, and their rivalry has deadly dimensions. Atmospheric pre-curtain music wisps itself around the stalls like sea-mist, growing steadily from merely insidious to loud, threatening and overwhelming. And the curtain rises on a terrifying scene; a woman gagged and bound to a chair. To gain her freedom, she has a dreadful choice – drink, from the table, one of the two glasses containing respectively plain water, and deadly poison.

It is a variant on one of those old conundrums about prisoners choosing the door to freedom, but it still holds mesmerising power. The plot unfolds with a number of twists, some a bit clumsy but some genuinely startling, and in fairness, this is a thriller not short on thrills.

Wronged wife Catherine, and Helen the apparent adulteress – I did say apparent – are expertly played by Sarah Wynne Kordas and Angie Smith. They sustain the tension and there is a teasing, perfectly judged chemistry between them, including a priceless, if tangential, scene in Act Two when they revert to their childhood five-year-old friendship. It feels like a drama school workshop, but it’s exquisitely played.

Memo to theatre reviewers (and self): never judge a production at half-time. Goodrum’s other device is to switch the action repeatedly in Act One between present and past, as the back-story fills in, and he does it with flash-bang effects and blinding lighting that works for the first few times, but actually becomes tiresome and irritating. The dialogue, too, is clipped and slightly cliched. Short statements. Never expanded. Sometimes repeated.

But after the interval, the story threads together, the characterisations move from two to three dimensions, and the human dilemmas are really gripping. Bert Brecht used to forbid his actors to engage with their audiences emotionally; how wrong he was. Theatre is at its best when the characters’ lives and dilemmas are real and credible, or at least close to credible. The Nightmare Room just might be everyone’s nightmare. Yes, a satisfying night’s theatre. By Kevin Anderson.