And now for some news far more shocking than the outcome of Emlyn Williams’ not always nailbiting chiller: In his straight play debut, Jason Donovan has his moments. Is such a verdict really possible? We are, after all, talking about the Australian soap star who kept teenyboppers in thrall in the recent London revival of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and who in May played a truly weird, wild-eyed Mordred in the Covent Garden Festival’s “Camelot.” Though his voice sounds no less husky even worn than it did last spring, the cavalier Donovan of “Camelot” is nowhere to be found. Say what you will about his murderous Dan in “Night Must Fall,” and many are going to be unkind, at least Donovan is trying.
The same word, used differently, could apply to this 1935 play, in which Williams himself originated the part of the preening killer followed by Robert Montgomery and Albert Finney in subsequent film versions. In John Tydeman’s current staging, the opening scene emerges on a cheesy dramatic par with designer Peter Rice’s isolated Essex bungalow, whose woodsy environs make the milieu of “The Mousetrap” seem positively post-modern.
Ruling the roost is Mrs. Bramson (a crisp Rosemary Leach), a wheelchair-bound spinster with a heart condition and a take on life gleaned seemingly exclusively from literature: Scotland Yard, she says, is “that place in those detective books.” Tended to by a grim-faced nurse (Brenda Kaye), Mrs. Bramson is a mean-spirited and, in matters financial, simply mean termagant, who chides lonely niece Olivia (Charlotte Fryer) for not liking men and chastises maid Dora (Kelly Johnston) for liking them enough to end up “in terrible trouble” (i.e. pregnant).
Enter Dan (Donovan), the local pageboy who fathered Dora’s child but who now seems more interested in humming the song “Dames,” lest a touring production of “42nd Street” pass anywhere nearby and offer him a way out of the woods. Also new to the scene is Inspector Belsize (Anthony Pedley), arrived to investigate a nasty local murder involving a hand sticking out of the rubbish bin and, famously, a head in a hatbox.
Might the murderer strike twice? So dull is the Bramson household that, Williams makes clear, they almost wish it would. “Nobody’s going to murder you,” Mrs. Bramson snaps at Olivia, as if she were hardly worth dispatching. Olivia, in turn, seems visibly aroused by thoughts of a killer in her midst, insisting in a wistful, only-in-Britain reverie that there is no point talking about the weather “when someone is lying in the woods.” (In my experience, it takes a lot more than the occasional corpse to steer English conversation away from the elements.)
It’s giving nothing away to state that the cherub-faced Dan is, in fact, the local psychopath; the question isn’t whether he will have another go, but when and how. That the initially wary Mrs. Bramson has taken a shine to the young man he’s a relief, she says, from “the screeching, common women” in her midst complicates matters: Could the orphaned Dan (in a play like this, such details count) possibly snuff out a woman whom he loves as a surrogate mother, and possibly more?
The conventions of Williams’ play are often laughable it starts to storm, natch, just as the climax occurs but the Welsh dramatist of the inspirational “The Corn Is Green” has more on his mind than a “Friday the 13th” of the Essex forest. There’s a marked Hamlet fixation to the preening Dan, whose fixation on playacting, pounding his head, and dealing with “mother” (in no particular order) are as recognizable as the banality-of-evil musings of the repressed Olivia: “And that’s murder,” she concludes. “It’s so ordinary.”
Donovan’s performance is anything but ordinary, and yet it’s far from the embarrassment one might expect. While the supporting players seem locked in a time warp Timothy Bentinck’s Hubert, the bungalow’s resident suitor, is more or less defined by remarks like “by Jove” Donovan’s Dan evinces an all too modern megalomania in his desire for notoriety at whatever the cost. Forever brushing his hair forward as if to cover a bald patch, he has the necessary insinuating charm, even when his accent travels beyond Wales to unknown shores.
And if the grander bouts of soul searching lead to a lot of flailing of arms, the actor has the audience laughing anxiously as he rolls up his sleeves. “The whole world’s going to have heard of me,” Dan says near the end, and if the same is unlikely ever to be said of Donovan, “Night Must Fall” suggests that there is at least life after the “Joseph” loincloth.