Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Review Darkness, Darkness

Francis Beckett admires the historical accuracy and heart in a murder mystery linked to a highly-charged, divisive turning point of Britain's recent industrial past.

Darkness, Darkness
by John Harvey

Strikers and Lovers

Set in Nottinghamshire during the miners’ strike, Darkness, Darkness is at once a thoughtful play about the 1984-5 miners' strike and a whodunnit. 

Novelist John Harvey has adapted one adventure from his Charlie Resnick detective series about the investigation of a cold case – the murder of a miner’s wife during the strike and part of its theme is the bitter conflict between striking Yorkshire miners and working Nottinghamshire miners.  

Having written a history of the strike (Marching to the Fault Line by Francis Beckett and David Hencke, Constable), I was glad to see that John Harvey had done his research and has a deep understanding of the emotions the strike created.  

In fact, surprisingly given that he is a professional crime writer, the play is stronger when re-creating the strike than when dramatizing the investigation. 

Indeed Nottingham Playhouse's locally-inspired current season is brave and interesting. New work strongly connected to the city of Nottingham and the county of Nottinghamshire fills its studio space and main stage, directed with care and love. 

In the studio space, there's another subterranean tale, The Underground Man, a new play about William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the Fifth Duke of Portland, an eccentric Nottinghamshire aristocrat who created the now famous tunnels at Welbeck Abbey

While my single evening in Nottingham allowed for only one play, I did get to talk to playwright Nick Wood, and get a flavour of another interesting Nottinghamshire-inspired theatrical adventure in addition to the riveting crime and coal play that is Darkness Darkness. 

The murder victim, Jenny Hardwick (a wonderful, restless performance from Elizabeth Twells) is married to a staid working Nottinghamshire miner (Chris Donnelly) and having an affair with a striking Yorkshire miner (John Askew).

Decades later Charlie Resnick, impressively brought to brooding, contemplative life by David Fleeshman, carries out the investigation into the unsolved case, aided by a young, female, black high-flying colleague Catherine Njoroge (a convincing and combative Simone Saunders.)

The cast is excellent – there is not a weak link anywhere. Husband and lover naturally are the first suspects when it comes to investigating her murder. I shall not of course tell you whodunnit, but, while remaining engrossed, I have to report that I had it nailed well before the end of the first act.

The script moves rapidly from place to place, with a traditional realistic set clearly out of the question. John Harvey himself writes that he didn't want to be "tied down by over-realistic and detailed sets ... allow[ing] for a more impressionistic evocation of place and a fluid relationship with time.”

An ingenious set device from designer Ruth Sutcliffe permits scene to follow scene quite smoothly. The time shifts are well handled by writer and director Jack McNamara – the play moves frequently and seamlessly between 1984 and the twenty first century investigation.

There is a less sure touch when it comes to the sub plots concerning the personal lives of the two detectives – they probably work well in the novel, but seem a little contrived on the stage.

Darkness Darkness may not be as well-executed as Wonderland by coalminer's daughter, Beth Steel, recently performed at the Hampstead Theatre, but that is an impossibly high bar to jump.

The Nottingham Playhouse has a fine play inextricably linked to an event three decades ago that still rouses passions locally and had vast repercussions for the city. It’s a magnificent achievement by writer, director, cast, and a brave adventure by the theatre. A green light from me – get to it if you can. 

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