NIGHT Must Fall, by Emlyn Williams, is one of the classic British thrillers, a real chiller that builds and builds until the tension is almost palpable.
It is the story of an unpleasant old woman, Mrs Bramson, who lives at Forest Corner, a house in the woods, with her frustrated and poor niece Olivia as paid companion. There is a feisty cook-housekeeper, Mrs Terence, a semi-literate maid, Dora, and a rather boring but nice chap called Hubert who wants to marry Olivia.
Into this not particularly happy household comes Dan, a bit of a jack-the-lad who has (in the period parlance) got Dora up the duff. He is working as bellboy at a hotel on the bypass of the nearby town, from where a woman who is definitely no better than she should be has mysteriously disappeared.
Dan is a charmer and frosty Mrs Bramson is soon eating out of his hand and singing his praises, despite the warnings of her niece that he may not be quite what he seems.
When the body of the missing woman is discovered – without her head – the police start looking more closely at this latest addition to the Forest Corner staff.
The new Original Theatre co-production with Salisbury Playhouse, directed with an acute sense of period by Luke Sheppard, really hits the spot for about 95 per cent of the time – but it fails at the end, and that is a serious problem.
Everything has been going so well – there is marvellous attention to detail in the 1930s set, the voices are just right, particularly Alasdair Buchan’s tweedy Hubert. Mandi Symonds is all cheek and gossip as the cook, Gwen Taylor is deliciously ghastly whether being a miserable old baggage or a kittenish “mother” to the orphaned Dan; and Niamh McGrady is the ice-maiden just waiting to be warmed up by something more than an offer of a steady uneventful marriage.
Will Featherstone as Dan is a real charmer – no surprise that even the haughty and hypochondriac Mrs Bramson is taken in by his blend of flattery and flirting. He is plausible and handsome (although not the “Babyface” that his character is described as) and brilliantly captures the knowing skill of a man who is always acting. The scene when he is on his own and the anger and violence that lurk just beneath the surface erupt in twitches and explosive movements is genuinely frightening.
It all builds to the horror of the old woman alone in the empty house, suddenly aware of her isolation and crying out for the young man who has become her mainstay.
Somehow all the good work of the first four scenes evaporates in the final minutes and the ending, with the less than convincing Inspector Belsize (Daragh O’Malley) falls away into anticlimax. The part of the policeman is oddly written, particularly for the 21st century audience which is so familiar with masterly detectives from Morse to the latest Scandinoir. His peculiar blend of avuncular humour and slight threat clearly puzzled one audience member near us, who wondered during the interval what he was doing because he was obviously not a real policeman.
Night Must Fall has a long national tour ahead. It may be that this was just a rather flat matinee performance, but we were not the only people who left the theatre feeling slightly cheated.
The production has plenty of energy, a fine sense of period style and excellent performances – but the final scene needs urgent and drastic action.