views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Boy in Darkness
The Blue Elephant Theatre
13th March 2015


Gareth Murphy

Photography © Lidia Crisafulli

A 14-year old who is normally locked up in a grand, imposing castle, confined to a life of privilege and obligation that holds no real interest for him, sneaks out one night. Personally, what I expect from an opening like that is a coming-of-age story, not necessarily heartwarming per se, but with an important revelation made by the protagonist about himself. What Mervyn Peake instead delivers is a short Gothic horror spin-off from his Gormenghast trilogy with an anthropomorphic Hyena and Goat, dominated by a frankly terrifying and weird white Lamb. Forget growing up, Boy in Darkness is the stuff of nightmares.

This surreal tale is adapted and performed by Gareth Murphy, who is clearly a big fan of Peake, even though the late author's work is, well, marmitey at best. Heck, even a big-budget BBC drama couldn't win everyone over. Still, however you feel about Peake, Murphy's grasp of physicality is unarguably excellent: he proves himself to be very versatile, switching from one character to the next with strong, controlled movements, distinct mannerisms and different voices. There's a wonderful elegance in every line and shape he makes. Murphy darts around the stage, climbing up walls, dangling precariously and making the intimate space of the Blue Elephant seem like his own personal playground, with a frantic energy which makes us feel truly immersed in the show.

The odd couple relationship between the Hyena and Goat is deliberately uncomfortable: they refer to each other in a way which implies a previous affection, but now plainly hate each other. Awkward. Their joint willingness to readily sacrifice the Boy, Titus Groan, proves neither particularly deserves our sympathy, but I can't say the grumpy teenager does much himself to get us on side. This lack of obvious moral anchor makes it difficult to connect to what's happening. And the reverse religious imagery is a touch pretentious, with the text aiming to do far more than it actually achieves.

As may be appropriate for a script with biblical connotations, Fridthjofur Thornsteinsson's lighting design, Jon McLeod's sound design and Martin Thomas's set design combine into a holy trinity of something quite beautiful and well-considered. There's a ethereal sense to the looming wooden set, with the glow of the back wall gently increasing in intensity against a subtly eerie sound track.

I've long been a regular visitor to Camberwell, and this is one of the cosiest layouts I've seen in the venue: the audience is brought forward and the space made smaller with a mixture of conventional seating and cushions. Looking for a comfortable spot, you can't help but think this is Gothic story time for grown ups. The downside though of reducing the space and resetting it in thrust is that with the lights up (as is the case for a large chunk), we can see the rest of the audience clearly and this does distract from solitary figure Murphy.

Boy in Darkness has been under development for two years and it does show in the polished finish that this has been a labour of love. As passionate as Murphy blatantly is about the novella, I just don't engage with it in the same way, and that makes the 70 minutes feel frustratingly slow in parts, with director John Walton's pacing off. I suspect this is a case of it's not the play, it's me, but if you do enjoy Peake's work, there's a lot to recommend here.

Boy in Darkness opened on 11th March and runs until 4th April 2015 at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)

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