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A CurtainUp London London Review
Darker Shores

I am a natural historian. Inspired by faith. The only supernatural events I know of are (quick, perfunctory) the conception of a boy child by a spotless virgin; the miraculous works of that boychild; his subsequent victory over the grave via the cross, and final ascension to His Father in Heaven. — Professor Stokes
Darker Shores
Vinette Robinson as Florence Kennedy, Tom Goodman-Hill as Professor Gabriel Stokes and Pamela Miles as Mrs Hinchcliffe
(Robert Day)
Gracing Hampstead Theatre, this Christmas is an old fashioned but for all that surprisingly refreshing, Victorian set ghost story, Darker Shores by Michael Punter. Mark Gatiss of The League of Gentlemen fame, withdrew because of family illness from the main part of Professor Gabriel Stokes, and Tom Goodman-Hill stepped into the role at under a week's notice before opening night. But Goodman-Hill's performance as the stuffy Victorian academic, a religious man battling against Darwin's theories who has lost his wife and son by drowning when their ship went down, is absolutely perfect and you would never guess he was a late addition to the cast.

Julian Rhind-Tutt adopts an American Southern drawl for the part of Virginia spiritualist, Dr Tom Beauregard whom Stokes consults after a visit to a house in East Sussex. Beauregard offers to investigate the strange noises and apparitions that Stokes has reported experiencing at the house so they journey from London to Sussex. Long haired, dishevelled Stokes appears to be occupied not just by the spirit apparitions as he downs glass after glass of whisky. No wonder he can see ectoplasm!

Pamela Miles is the loyal and serious housekeeper who wants to attract visitors to stay in the house but not as the twentieth century ghost experience and Vinette Robinson is Florenc the housemaid with a story of her own. I cannot reveal any more of the plot but suffice it to say that I found Darker Shores spooky but without being terrified out of my wits.

I loved Paul Farnsworth's black crepe swathed and damask draped set with almost everything painted black: just the page on the typewriter white and a few cream Church candles to offset almost total Gothic gloom. Even the mahogany chairs are upholstered in black and the normally red wood is painted black. The chandeliers swing ominously and there are other very special effects to create a frisson of fear and excitement. Sound and lighting designers have combined for some spectacular thunder and lightning, bumps from the attic and less explicable phenomenon.

The play has a fair amount of comic levity and a teeny bit of high camp to allow us to smile in between being mock-scared. Tom Goodman-Hill is masterly at the faintly ridiculous with his studied, jerky descriptions of scenes of high, but suppressed, undercurrents of emotion. Director Anthony Clark ensures that the comic vein is never allowed to dominate.

The success of the over twenty years long running Woman in Black at London's tiny Fortune Theatre has amazed many but the ghost story genre, like the other long running Agatha Christie play, has patrons returning for more even when they know the ending or the surprises. As a Christmas play with a difference, Darker Shores is very welcome, an intelligent break from the relentless pantomimes.

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Darker Shores
Written by Michael Punter
Directed by Anthony Clark

Starring: Tom Goodman-Hill, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pamela Miles, Vinette Robinson
Design: Paul Farnsworth
Lighting: Tim Mitchell
Sound: Edward Lewis
Video and Projection Design: Thomas Gray for The Gray Circle
Illusionists: Ben Hart and Darren Lang
Special Effect: Oliver Izod
Running time: Two hours 10 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 16th January 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th December 2009 performance at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London NW3 3EU (Tube: Swiss Cottage)
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