I’ll Be Back Before Midnight is billed as a thriller, but at times it is also darkly comical. In this production by The Tea Tree Players, surprisingly the laughs flow a little too freely at times because of some unconvincing production elements. More on that later.
Written by prolific Canadian playwright Peter Colley I’ll Be Back Before Midnight has an extensive performance history, having been produced many times in over 30 countries, but rarely (if ever) it seems in ‘significant’ theatres. Actors of the calibre of Dennis Waterman (“Minder”, “The Sweeney”) have starred in it on stages in the UK. It was made into a film called Illusions for Showtime (1992), but it never excited the critics. It’s most recent production in Adelaide was by St Jude’s Players in 2019.
The action is set in the Cornish countryside in the late 1980s. After an extended period in a psychiatric hospital recovering from a nervous breakdown, Jan (played by Nicole walker) is brought to an isolated farmhouse by her scientist husband Greg (Nic Betts) to complete her recuperation. The farmer who owns the property, George (John Hudson) John, welcomes them and mischievously regales them with stories of about ghostly events that have happened in and about the house. Naturally this unsettles Jan, but her recovery is severely put in jeopardy with the arrival of her over-bearing sister-in-law Laura (Genevieve Hudson) who has been invited to stay by Greg. In quick time things start to go badly wrong for Jan and she experiences all manner of unsettling occurrences that culminate in tragic outcomes.
In some respects, many of the things that happen to Jan are anticipated by audience, but suspecting what is going to happen is part of the playwright’s ruse as he dashes those expectations with twists and turns in the plot. However, to make it all work and for the production to truly be a “gripping psychological thriller” (director Gigi Jeffers’ words), various key production elements need to be firmly in place. For example, the appearance of a ghostly form in the dark of night that is intended to scare Jan witless is rendered comical by costuming that would be more appropriate for a Halloween trick or treater. A crucial fight scene at the climax of the show drew much laughter from the audience because of its clumsiness, and deserved to be choreographed by a skilled fight director to make it convincing.
Walker played Jan with appropriate jumpiness and palpable apprehension. Betts was effective in portraying Greg as a cold and uncaring husband, but Jeffers might have earlier in the play had him portray more strongly the sinister aspects of his character. His performance was confident but needed to operate across a greater range of emotional levels. Hudson established Laura as a manipulating and not-to-be trusted house guest very quickly and sustained the implied menace throughout.
The standout performance was from Hudson, especially in Act 1. His endearing Cornish accent was not overdone, and his avuncular characterisation complemented his tight delivery of his many very funny one-liners.
As is generally the case for The Tea Tree Players, the set was excellent with close attention to detail. Apart from a troublesome door, it worked very well, and Jeffers confidently moved her cast around it. Mike Phillips’ lighting was appropriately evocative and the soundtrack which heavily featured French impressionist piano music imbued the action with an overall melancholy and forlorn mood that perfectly matched Jan’s depressed and troubled world.