Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge – until Saturday 5th November 2022
Reviewed by Steph Lott
What makes a good horror story? Horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” The sense of delicious, shivering anticipation is a major part of the pleasure of a ghost story. However, is the ghost worth waiting for?
It’s Christmas 1875 and Professor Gabriel Stokes (Max Caulfield) arrives to take up lodgings at The Sea House, a spooky eerie house cared for by Mrs Hinchcliffe (Juliet Mills), on a desolate stretch of the East Sussex coast. But the Professor hardly has time to set down his suitcase before Mrs Hinchcliffe tells him of the troubled history of the house, the disappearance of its owner who was a zealous missionary who mysteriously vanished, and there are unexplained bumps in the night.
Despite being a rational man, the Professor enlists the help of Tom Beauregard (Michael Praed) a troubled American spiritualist. The two men (one who bears a striking resemblance to General Custer!) then set out to discover the truth.
I don’t want to spoil the play by saying too much more about the plot. However you can expect some nice shocks and there were plenty of gasps and jumps amongst the audience on the night I saw it performed. A ghost is expected to appear but where and when?
Following the traditions of the finest ghost stories, Darker Shores is a gripping and shadowy tale of suspense. The play has a quietly menacing soundscape, and a nicely gothic set. The set is all shades of dark – black, brown and grey. There is low level background noise and eerie lighting which both contribute to the atmosphere of dread and foreboding. It seems a fitting play to enjoy during the lengthening autumnal nights.
The performance is well played by a competent and experienced company. Maxwell Caulfield plays hesitant, baffled and grief ridden Professor Gabriel Stokes with a confused gentlemanly air. Juliet Mills gives a fine performance as the slightly stiff, Northern landlady, Mrs Hinchcliffe. Michael Praed is wonderful as the American medium, Tom Beauregard, who may not be the charlatan that he appears to be. Chipo Kureya is charming as the maid Florence Kennedy, with a surprising talent for second sight. They all add real depth to the characters they portray and the gradual reveal of the backstory of each is extremely well done.
It was an enjoyable evening’s entertainment. Along with the shocks there are some very funny comedic moments and lines and it’s great to see a story that is more than one-dimensional. My only issue was with the ending. It is paramount that narrative demands are met and we have an explanation for what happened, yet what will that explanation be? If the bumps are logically explained, it’s not a ghost story. In Punter’s play, everything is finally explicit. It left me slightly deflated.
Everyone loves a ghost story. Judging by the gasps and jumps, the play delivered the delicious thrill and dread that the audience was promised.