There is something of the fireside tale about Michael Punter’s Darker Shores, which can only be a good thing for a Christmas ghost story.
You can almost hear the crackle of the warming winter flames as the play opens with British scientist Professor Gabriel Stokes recounting his ghostly meeting in a rickety old coastal house to American spiritualist Tom Beauregard. The encounter is inexplicable in Stokes’s black and white world of science and Anglican Christianity, so he is forced to seek solace from a man and process he does not trust.
As Stokes’s tale unfurls, the audience is drawn into his sea-blasted, Victorian world, but it is when the pair returns to the house that the ghostly goings on are cranked up.
This is a haunting tale in a traditional sense. Strange, startling noises cause the audience to jump, unexplained figures make ethereal appearances and a dark secret lurks behind designer Paul Farnsworth’s looming oaken door, shrouded statues and a cold, uninviting cast iron bed. There is no shortage of the gleeful stage magic that such ghost stories revel in, though to give too much away would be to rob you of the jumps and smiles.
But there is depth behind Punter’s ghoulish romp. Each character is haunted in their own way; each has a ghost of the past hiding in the shadows of their mind. Amid the quest to discover the house’s horrific secret, questions of religion, science, belief and reality briefly raise their philosophical heads, occasionally slowing the building suspense of Anthony Clark’s production.
Playwright Punter and actors Julian Rhind-Tutt and Tom Goodman-Hill were contemporaries at Warwick University, and there is an easy chemistry between the two leads, even though Goodman-Hill had barely a week to rehearse, stepping in at the last minute to replace Mark Gatiss.
Rhind-Tutt is the extravagant, theatrical American with a Jack Daniels-soaked Southern drawl, to Goodman-Hill’s proper, mannered, verbose Stokes; an unlikely double act, whose differences bring them together and create a delightful friction. Pamela Miles’s housekeeper Mrs Hinchcliffe is, like the house, isolated, creaky and disturbing. Vinette Robinson completes the small cast as the nervy, good-hearted servant Florence.
The production finds the humour in Punter’s script, sometimes where there should be tension, but in the second half, as the truth in everyone’s past comes out, the laughter disappears to be replaced by a still, suspenseful, supernatural silence.