By Max Eshraghi
Davis Grubb’s novel The Night of the Hunter is a distinctly mature, dark and adult tale of menace and Act One must be commended for pulling off this sinister story with so much style and emotional punch. In it, we witness the attempts of a psychotic preacher, preying on a pair of children who are reluctant to tell him where their late criminal father hid $10000 he’d stolen in a robbery.
Charming his way into the life of their vulnerable mother, he torments the children, who seem utterly alone in their fight against this maniacal ‘man of God’. Thomas Greene as villainous Preacher Harry Powell layered charismatic charm over a furious, psychotic interior to produce an convincingly sinister performance. His slight frame unfortunately robbed him of a degree of physical intimidation, but this was effectively countered by his sudden bursts of fury, which kept him an unsettling and ominous stage presence. Whilst not quite holding a candle to the iconic Robert Mitchum performance of the classic 1955 film (an almost impossible feat) he still managed to chill the spines of most audience members.
Holding their own against this excellently villainous performance, Georgia Bradley and James Sidwell were standouts in their roles of the tortured, fragile mother and her determined young son. Bradley in particular shone in a heart-wrenching monologue that was arguably the play’s emotional highlight. Elsewhere the cast vary. Amy Gilbrook in the challenging role of young Pearl Harper often overplayed the childishness, seemingly leaning on drama school clichés. Others, like Todd Elliot and Bruno Chavez were slightly unconvincing as more elderly Southern gentlemen, with performances that might have been more inkeeping with a Monty Python sketch. The play’s West Virginia setting also posed an accent challenge for its young cast: the Southern drawls were generally solid across the board, but some sounded more West Devon than West Virginia, particularly amongst the smaller roles. However, dubious accents aside, this was a talented ensemble, added to by a strong second-half performance from Sophie Brown, who played the protective Rachel Cooper with much gusto.
All of the action takes place against a back drop of an ominous looking forest. A nice metaphor perhaps for isolation that many of the characters find themselves in – although you have to wonder the thought process behind placing hay on the stage when most of the story takes place in a domestic setting. The odd first night hiccups aside, the performance was involving, emotive and punctuated occasionally by shockingly violent moments. It is a shame that the first Act drags, with a lull in the middle upsetting the nicely drawn out tension that pervaded the first hour. A shorter second act gives the story the shot in the arm it desperately needed, but it had quite a bit to make up for after pre-interval lull. Yet whilst not quite as nail-biting as it could have been, it was a well-crafted, compelling and a solid adaptation nonetheless.