The Lass O’Gowrie, Charles Street, Manchester. Until Sunday 8th January 2012
Midnight was one of the darkest episodes of Doctor Who, and a personal triumph for Russell T Davies. The Manchester-based writer and creator of the controversial Queer As Folk and The Second Coming had revived the BBC’s classic sci-fi series rather spectacularly, and with David Tennant taking on the title role had managed to propel the show to new heights of popularity and critical acclaim. Midnight was unusual for a Tennant episode, as we saw his normally unflappable and almost superhuman Doctor brought quite literally to his knees at the hands of a terrifying invisible enemy. Previous Davies stories had been hugely entertaining and thought-provoking, but had sometimes been criticised for being too upbeat, sentimental and overly optimistic about ‘the human condition’. Midnight proved that RTD could take us into much darker and unsettling territory with a tale that reminded me of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass at its very best.
The story sees our hero join a small group of tourists on a giant space truck crossing a lifeless planet made of diamond. In no time at all, they find themselves in dire straits as the engines fail, the pilots are killed, and one of the passengers becomes possessed. To produce this story on the stage, rather than television, is a hell of a task, requiring a tight-knit group of top notch actors, and a director with a grip of steel. This production triumphs on every level, and is quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever seen in a theatre. Honestly, I am not exaggerating here. The tension was almost unbearable at times, and the whole experience was deeply unnerving. In fact, I had nightmares afterwards.
There is no mention of ‘The Doctor’ in this production, as the character remains the property of the BBC, and this is a not-for-profit presentation. Russell T Davies granted his permission for the project to go ahead, and so our title character is here named ‘Dr John Smith’. This works brilliantly, and proves that the story works perfectly well beyond the confines of a hugely familiar television series.
Staged in a small room with space for around 30 audience members, the atmosphere was truly claustrophobic, with the actors just inches away from us. A white floor, black walls and a silver entrance door created our space truck, and gave us nowhere to hide. At just 50 minutes (the length of the original tv episode), there was no padding of the story; simply a tight, tense, nerve-jangling experience.
Mike Woodhead had the unenviable task of playing John Smith, and proved to be an inspired bit of casting. This was no simple imitation of David Tennant, but a beautifully realised interpretation of an iconic character who we all think we know. Apart from brandishing the sonic screwdriver a couple of times, Woodhead never once fell into the trap of replicating the familiar tics and body language of Tennant’s Time Lord. Zoe Matthews as Sky Sylvestry was outstanding as the heartbroken woman possessed by the alien invader, and gave an utterly remarkable performance. I happened to be sitting right by her through the most terrifying scenes, and I can tell you I was astonished. This is a part that any actress would be hard pressed to pull off; requiring the performer to regularly repeat the other characters’ dialogue and speech patterns, then proceed to speak their lines a fraction of a second before they do. In simple terms this means the actress playing Sky must learn nearly every line in the play, and time her interactions with the other actors to the split second. As I said, astonishing.
Phil Dennison and Paida Noel made a terrific double act as the condescending Professor Hobbes and his mousey assistant Dee-Dee, while Natalie Husdan, Matt Aistrup, and Michael Loftus as the bickering and dysfunctional Cane family provided sterling support. The family’s strained relationships were evident from the start, and the fact that the characters only bonded when deciding to commit an act of stomach-churning violence was pretty damn chilling.
Jane Leadbetter as The Hostess provided the few comic moments, with a character whose brittle and artificial surface soon cracked when faced with any interruption to her work routine. Her finest moment will surprise anyone unfamiliar with the story from the television episode, but is still a fabulous emotional jolt for the audience.
Director Brainne Edge has done a fantastic job of marshalling her actors in a confined performance space, and should be congratulated on a wonderful adaptation of one of Dr Who’s best ever episodes. Produced by The Lass O’Gowrie’s Gareth Kavanagh and Lisa Connor, Midnight is simply a breath-taking, audacious piece of theatre.