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Arts: Theatre: The importance of being truly evil

FACED WITH a double bill of ghostly chillers called Darkness Falls, I'm the sort of person who anticipates an evening that would be better entitled "Boredom Descends". I'm haunted enough already, thank you very much. So Jonathan Holloway's piquant pairing of two creepy one-acters at the Palace Theatre, Watford, came as a very pleasant surprise.

Proceedings kick off with WW Jacobs' classic 1902 short story, The Monkey's Paw, updated to the 1940s among those bereaved by the Second World War. After the interval is The Dark, an original play by Holloway with a contemporary setting, though it shares a remote Northumbrian locale with the Jacobs, and a preoccupation with the rash deals we make with the supernatural.

At the start of the former, you find yourself irresistibly reminded of the spoof murder mystery in Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound. The howling wind, the heavy emphasis on the lonely inaccessibility of this working-class cottage, the deathless dialogue ("He fought his way across Burma, I think he can manage to get to us," declares Father of their tardy ex-soldier guest), and the seemingly brainless wife bustling about her domestic chores - all these seem to have roughly the same relation to real terror as "Acorn Antiques" does to "The Spoils of Poynton".

But it's a calculated gamble on the part of director Giles Croft that pays off handsomely, making the subsequent stealthy escalation into authentic horror all the more powerful. From plucky cipher, Suzy, Aitchison's wife, suddenly deepens into a desperately distraught mother and the play, with its eponymous charm twisting like a snake in the hands of those who seek to profit by it, becomes a sinister study in the treacherous ambiguity of our deepest wishes. Those final blows on the door resonate in the nerves for a long time afterwards.

A dramatisation of The Monkey's Paw is being announced on the radio at the start of The Dark, a droll touch that has the effect of underlining the inferiority of the latter as ghostly drama. Part of the trouble is that, whereas the shockingness of the Jacobs is properly dramatised and mounts till the final, last-second twist, The Dark theorises about its themes and renders them diffuse. It is set on New Year's Eve at the annual party where Simian Black (Philip Bretherton), a silkenly pervy ex-Cambridge don, entertains favoured former pupils. Short of swanning around in a sandwich board that declares: "Hi, I'm Mephistopheles, fly me!", it is hard to see how either play or performance could signal the function of this character louder or earlier.

The cat-and-mouse conversation at this sticky do crackles with baleful inventiveness - airing ideas like that of a Faust who is prepared to commit suicide rather than allow the devil to get his cloven mitts on a girlfriend. And if these fancies aren't satisfyingly subsumed into a story with drive, they certainly thicken the atmosphere of donnish diabolic depravity. A compelling evening that is also a puzzle. Can this be the same Jonathan Holloway who once staged a version of Macbeth that cut out all mention of the witches?

Paul Taylor

To 20 Feb, 01923 225671