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Benighted review at the Old Red Lion, London – ‘entertaining and atmospheric’

Tom Machell and Harrie Hayes in Benighted at the Old Red Lion, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

JB Priestley’s early novel, Benighted, was filmed by James Whale as The Old Dark House in 1932. In his stage adaptation, playwright Duncan Gates captures the original’s odd mix of gothic campiness and psychological complexity.

A group of people find themselves stranded at an ominous house on a dark and stormy night. There’s a married couple, a young gadabout, a wealthy businessman and the chorus girl he’s whisked off to see the sea. Stranded in the house and plied with gin by Horace Femm (a suitably creepy Michael Sadler), one of its mysterious inhabitants, they begin to reveal hidden things to each other. Stephen Whitson’s entertaining production switches between heightened silliness – there is a strobe-lit fight sequence – and more reflective moments. The shadow of the First World War hangs heavy over the characters and the cast convey a sense of profound and lasting damage beneath their chipper English exteriors. This is particularly true of Matt Maltby’s gung-ho but broken Penderel and Ross Forder’s prototypical Birling.

Designer Gregor Donnelly has lacquered the Old Red Lion walls in black to create a skewed playing space that successfully evokes the sprawling and dilapidated house in the intimate venue.

Though the ending is a bit muted and the whole thing feels at times like a draft of things to come, Gates’ sure hand means it’s often genuinely affecting. With An Inspector Calls back in the West End, Benighted provides a stimulating glimpse of the first flames of Priestley’s fascinations, with the passing of time, social responsibility and the abuse of privilege, and the many ways in which people haunt themselves.

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Verdict
Entertaining, atmospheric and at times genuinely affecting adaptation of an early work by JB Priestley
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