Night Must Fall, Swan Theatre, Yeovil

AT first sight, you might think that Emlyn Williams’ 1935 drama Night Must Fall would be dated. The grumpy old hypochondriac in her wheel-chair, lording it over her staff and her penniless niece-companion, the bumbling Scotland Yard detective, the middle-aged bachelor looking for a wife and the cliche setting of the house in the middle of the forest.

So far, so standard theatrical fare. But, as director Richard Jones says in his programme notes, the more you look at this old warhorse of the stage, the more contemporary resonances you find.

And it’s not just the exaggerated or fake news, the guilty appetite of shocked “ordinary people” for every gruesome detail – it is also the attitude to the actual crime. In the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder and the everyday threats and sexism which women face, there is a recognition that the victim often suffers twice. First there is the attack or even murder and then there is the feverish tabloid speculation focusing on the victim’s appearance and background.

A woman has disappeared from the Tallboys hotel. A detective arrives at Forest Corner, Mrs Bramson’s bungalow in the woods in Essex. Who is the missing woman, Mrs Chalfont? Mrs Bramson’s cook, Mrs Terrence (Samantha Elgar nailing the mix of stroppy servant and judgemental pillar of society) has a potted profile at her finger-tips: “Dyed platinum blonde—widow of a colonel, so she says, livin’ alone, so she says, always wearin’ them faldalaldy openwork stockings. Fond of a drop too. That’s ‘er.” Not of course that Mrs Terrence has actually met her: “Never set eyes on ‘er. But you know how people talk.” And then, the none-too-subtle allusion: “Partial to that there, too, I’m told.”

There you have it – that timeless inference that a glamorous woman with a mysterious past deserves whatever happens to her.

So when Danny, the improbable “page boy” from the Tallboys, turns up and turns on the charm, there is curiosity, nosy resentment and even jealousy, but nobody other than the repressed Olivia (Alison Maynard-Griffin) really suspects him. And the usually scathing Mrs Bramson (Sarah Easterbrook) is captivated.

Swan Theatre’s Night Must Fall was a victim of the March 2020 lockdown. The first performance was cancelled just hours before curtain-up. The subsequent 16 months have seen rehearsals possible only on Zoom, and continuing uncertainty over actual performance.

But all that is forgotten as the claustrophobic story takes hold of the audience. The perpetrator is in plain sight, yet we never know if he will strike again or be caught. At a time when Scandi noir, gritty French police dramas and Line of Duty have dominated our screens, it is good to be reminded of the power of the theatre when it comes to psychological drama.

Director Richard Jones had had to step into the role of Dan just before the original opening night. He carries it off with panache, swaggering, flirtatious, dangerous, unpredictable …

The Swan’s experienced actor-director Robert Graydon took on the director’s role to bring the show to life, at last, on one of the hottest nights anyone can remember. (The heat put the Swan’s new ventilation system to the test, and it passed with flying colours).

The high standards of set-building, costume and lighting are always a given at the Swan. This set, designed by Annetta Broughton, is exceptional, with the big windows and door looking out into the endless darkness of the forest. It’s creepy long before Danny sets his light foot on the beige carpet.

Night Must Fall continues to Saturday 24th July. Welcome back, Swan Theatre!


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