REVIEW: Darker Shores is frighteningly good

Gabriel Stokes played by Matt Green,  Florence played by Lilly Beards, Tom Beauregard played by James Bryan, Mrs Hinchcliffe played by Helen Preston in Darker Shores at Hasland Playhouse.
Gabriel Stokes played by Matt Green, Florence played by Lilly Beards, Tom Beauregard played by James Bryan, Mrs Hinchcliffe played by Helen Preston in Darker Shores at Hasland Playhouse.

Christmas, 1875, is approaching, but the spirit is decidedly fiendish, not festive, at The Sea House, perched on cliffs above the Sussex coast.

Professor Gabriel Stokes is a devout Christian but a sceptic of the supernatural, yet feels compelled to call, well not exactly Ghostbusters, but American paranormal investigator Thomas Beauregard, a self-styled ‘doctor of the spiritual sciences’, after a disturbing stay beside the seaside.

Stokes wants to get to the bottom of the things that went bump in the night, and the moans and groans of seemingly lost souls mingling with the sound of the crashing waves down in the English Channel.

Despite his doubts, the Prof is troubled by the thought the house may be haunted by its owner, Elijah Marchant, supposedly missing on missionary service overseas and presumed dead. . . or is he?

Michael Punter’s ghostly tale Darker Shores, in a frighteningly good production by Hasland Theatre Company this week, had all the right ingredients to chill our spines and curdle our blood.

Special effects wizard John Fox clearly relished the challenge to create a host of spooky spectacles, from lights flashing on and off, books tumbling off bookcases and dolls gyrating of their own accord, to dust sheets flying off statuettes a truly scary, ghostly apparition at the French windows and a spooky spirit which took off from the table before whizzing over our heads.

At times, the audience’s nervous laughter suggested they weren’t sure whether to be amused or terrified, with pleading arms of drowning seafarers reaching out from the fireplace and throwing a lifebelt, though director Tristan Weston’s programme notes make clear his intention to stage a classic ghost story.

And in this, his Hasland debut at the helm, he succeeded with aplomb, drawing the most from his cast of four in a work that demanded high emotion and powerful acting from them.

In two seances Beauregard calls up a succession of characters from ‘the other side’ Stokes’ wife and little boy, who died 15 years earlier when the ship they were sailing on, the SS Heroic, sank, and Marchant’s teenage son, another drowning victim.

At first Stokes brands him a fraud, but the second session brings back not just the voices of the departed, but a host of unsettling questions.

Tom Bannister’s soundscape of heaving seas, heart-rending cries and the banging and dragging noises from the room above was realistic enough have us all flinching at the slightest sounds as we settled down to sleep later that night.

Matt Green was masterful as Stokes, the academic brought down to earth by facing up to his own emotions and the loss of his wife and child. James Bryan deftly handled the shifting characteristics of Beauregard, the cocky American at first confident he was worth his 30 guineas fee to lift the lid on Sea House’s secrets, but later branded a coward for hesitating to stir up more spirits.

Lily Beards shone as Florence the maid, her sustained shrieks jangling our nerve ends as she was taken over by the voice of Marchant’s late son. And Helen Preston, as stoic housekeeper Agnes Hinchcliffe, was a model of Victorian sobriety masking the dark secrets she shared with the house of horrors.