[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/70569?ns=guardian&pageName=Darker+Shores+%7C+Theatre+review%3AArticle%3A1315827&ch=Stage&c3=Guardian&c4=Theatre%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=Michael+Billington&c7=09-Dec-08&c8=1315827&c9=Article&c10=Review&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FTheatre[/img]Hampstead Theatre, London
Darker Shores Hampstead Theatre, London ∂∂∂∂∂
Subtract The Woman in Black, and ghost stories are rare in modern drama. Now Michael Punter has attempted to fill the gap, and the result includes all the right ingredients from noises in the night to faces at windows. But, while it certainly makes a change from anodyne seasonal entertainments, it exudes the faint aroma of a skilful Victorian pastiche.
Punter knows how to whet our appetite. Setting the action in 1875, he starts with a Christian natural historian, Gabriel Stokes, recounting his experiences in a remote East Sussex house to an American spiritualist. The house once belonged to a missionary who vanished without trace. And Stokes, having rented a room to write an anti-Darwinian diatribe, is unsurprisingly persuaded by nocturnal window-tappings that the place is haunted. So he returns with his spiritualist chum to see if, through a seance, they can contact the other side.
To say more would be to spoil the eerie fun, and, to his credit, Punter strikes a nice balance between the macabre and the mirthful. Paul Farnsworth's set, Tim Mitchell's lighting, and Thomas Gray's projections create some flesh-creeping moments: the sudden emergence of an apparition through a whirl of spindrift made even Hampstead sophisticates jump out of their skins. At the same time, Punter makes ironic sport of Stokes, who, while apparently endorsing the New Testament from the virgin birth to the resurrection, solemnly announces: "I do not believe in the supernatural."
The only problem is that Punter's play seems as ghost-ridden as the house itself. In particular the medium has echoes of David Mamet's The Shawl, Coward's Blithe Spirit, and Browning's Mr Sludge who claims "I've told my lie and seen truth follow." What the play also lacks is the power of suggestion which pervades the best ghost stories. In Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, we are never sure whether Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are evil spectres or the governess's fantasies. In Punter's play, everything is finally made explicit.
There is no denying the theatrical effectiveness of Anthony Clark's production. Tom Goodman-Hill, stepping in at the very last moment for Mark Gatiss, is excellent as Stokes, lending him just the right air of pompous probity. Julian Rhind-Tutt is also good as the unhappy medium, and there is fine, unfussy support from Pamela Miles as the housekeeper, and from Vinette Robinson as a housemaid.
Even if the play feels rather like an imitation Victorian ghost story, it has the merit of being an ingenious copy.
Ends 16 Jan. Box office: 020-7722 9301
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Guardian: Darker Shores | Theatre review
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