[The following contains spoilers.]
Michael Moreland’s “The Night Porters” is presently established at Paradise in Augustine’s – a basement venue which, on the evening of my visit, smells inexplicably of feet. Maybe during the previous show a dance troupe had all peeled off their socks to dance barefoot. “The Night Porters” is supposed to be a ghost story, but the humans are a lot better than the ghosts. Let us deal with the ghosts first.
It was unfortunate for “The Night Porters” that I saw this play shortly after reviewing the Theatre of the Damned’s “As Ye Sow.” Both plays set out to frighten their audiences – which is admittedly a rare and difficult thing to do in theatre – but “The Night Porters” is less innovative or indeed competent in obtaining the scares. In “As Ye Sow” the stage was planted with surprises, generating an increasingly jittery suspense. In “The Night Porters” a large trunk has been placed against a stage wall when nothing in the story justifies the presence of such a hefty prop. It is hardly a spoiler to reveal that something will jump out of this trunk at the end of the play. Indeed, it is virtually like waiting for a toaster to pop.
Perhaps the production team was cursed with an overzealous health-and-safety officer, for we are given plenty of warning that something will jump out of that trunk, just in case there is anybody with a weak heart in the audience. The lid rattles open half way through the play, indicating how the prop works. No attempt is made to conceal the sounds of the actor easing himself into position for his big moment. Sitting at the front, I find myself making eye contact with the trunk, insofar as this is possible through the slit below the lid. I am not going to jump, I communicate telepathically to whatever is inside the trunk. I jump anyway.
The ghosts in the writing are a little better. One of the night porters tells a jolly old urban myth about a ghost which turns out to be a premonition, and he has devised a Ouija board which can track the whereabouts of the spirits in the hotel in real time. Yet the best thing about “The Night Porters” is the humans. Robert Stuart and Rhys Jennings do a fine job in bringing to life the two inadequate but likeable night porters, and their dialogue is often pleasantly quirky. Dom (Jennings) never goes to restaurants because he does not like people watching him eat. He has invented a new sort of Scotch egg which features a layer of crisps. It sounds more hideous than anything in the supernatural.
Terry is a university graduate who has ended up back in his home town, living with his mother and taking this dead-end job to get him out of the house. Dom is his sprightly but tempestuous superior, who is apparently training Terry to take over his own job. The pair bully and manipulate each other – they are the sort of sad cases who you used to come across regularly in workplaces when I was a teenager, until they were all replaced with Polish supermen. Terry longs to be a “writer,” although he can only write about himself. Dom is a self-appointed expert in the supernatural and he also has a book in the works.
“The Night Porters” would be a better play if they had sent the ghosts packing. Perhaps the supernatural tomfoolery has been added cynically, to reconcile audiences with a story which is otherwise too realistic. Yet experience is essential if you are going to cut it as a writer, and Dom and Terry’s brush with the ghost may lead them to collaborate together on a book which will prove an absolute sensation.