Free-Rain Theatre Company. The Courtyard Studio at the Canberra Theatre Centre - 28 October 2011
With inspiration stemming from the letters her mother wrote while living in colonial India, playwright Tess Bremner has affectionately drawn on these recollections to craft The Dark Side of Midnight - an elegant but harrowing tale, set during the final days of British rule.
A gripping melodrama set against a backdrop of the impending Partition of India and Pakistan, The Dark Side of Midnight tells the story of Geraldine Lucas (Lainie Hart), a comfortable young British Raj wife who is more threatened by the events unfolding in her well-appointed home than the chaos erupting on the streets.
When Geraldine discovers the cruel intentions of her mysterious English servant, (Brian Kavanagh) to whom her husband (Josh Wiseman) is indebted, she finds herself trapped inside the house with a manipulative madman with no one to turn to – not even her own sister Celia (Andrea Close).
As her life is methodically destroyed and India goes up in flames, she and her family flee back to Sussex in England to rebuild their lives – only to be haunted by the past some twenty years later.
Lanie Hart is magnificent as the feisty Geraldine, giving her full commitment to the leading role and keeping the audience on the edge of its seat through a finely tuned combination of despair and resolve. Equally enthralling is Brian Kavanagh as the devious butler, Walker, channelling a demeanour hostile and loathsome enough to make your skin crawl. Andrea Close’s performance as Geraldine’s dismissive and somewhat bitter sister Celia - a little rattled in the first act - brought a maturity and depth to the production that really came into its own in the second act.
Eliza Bell as Geraldine’s dizzy fellow ex-patriot, Henrietta Coke-Symonds, and the ignorant but loveable English housemaid Edie is also an absolute delight. Bringing well-placed comic relief to the seriousness of the protagonist’s circumstances, her convincing performances are darling. As both Geraldine’s pompous but tender husband Major John Lucas, and Henrietta’s husband Colonel Bertie Coke-Symonds in the second act, Josh Wiseman gives solid performances, his characters providing an ocean of frustratingly patronising calm before the storm.
A highly insightful production, The Dark Side of Midnight impregnates relevant historical references to the social and political conditions of pre-Independence India into its tightly written dialogue. This approach is complemented by vivid archive imagery of the country displayed on screens framing the stage, bringing the people and places of the era to life with a touch of visual realism. However, the plot ultimately centres on the personal lives of these colonial characters that are quite detached from the upheaval outside their doorstep.
The intimacy of the Courtyard studio and the emotionally responsive lighting also provided a perfect backdrop for the dramatically rising tension and subsequent heart-racing climax of The Dark Side of Midnight, bringing the people so close to the emotional heat that it provoked a number of clearly audible gasps and cries of surprise.
The Dark Side of Midnight is a gem of a production that deals with issues of class, race and gender in an unsanitised yet inoffensive manner. It intertwines rich historical fact with a riveting work of fiction to create sharp and compelling local theatre that’s a sight to behold.
By Deborah Hawke
The Dark Side of Midnight is playing at the Courtyard Studio at the Canberra Theatre Centre until November 13.