The Black Veil – March 2011

Rating: 5/10

By: John Goodrum, based on a short story by Charles Dickens

Directed by: Bruce James

Venue: Connaught Theatre, Worthing

Date: Friday 4th March 2011

This production was by the same team that gave us The Signalman back in 2009. We both felt this wasn’t such a good adaptation; in particular, the opening scene was too long-winded, with the veiled lady going on at great length about her distress while not actually getting round to explaining her concerns. I admit to nodding off during this scene, but Steve brought me up to speed at the interval.

The set was a bit sparse, even for a touring production, and perhaps part of the problem was that the open nature of the acting space reduced the atmosphere. In any case, the second half worked better for us once the third character turned up and the plot began to unravel nicely.

The story was simple enough to begin with. A young doctor gets a visit late at night from an elderly, frail lady who is wearing  thick black veil. She has come to the doctor for help, but claims that he can’t actually do anything. Instead of turfing her out, he insists on getting involved, and agrees to come to her lodgings the next morning even though it will be too late, the man she wants him to help is already dead! From various clues, it sounds as though the man she’s talking about – her son – is due to be executed, but it’s never made clear (at least not while I was awake). We do find out that the young doctor, whose practice hasn’t got going yet, which is why he’s keen to accept any patient at all, was engaged to be married to a young woman, but called it off when he saw how she treated her bedridden mother. He had since become engaged to another lady, and was only waiting to establish his medical practice and earn a decent income before he can marry her, as he  has to obtain her brother’s approval.

The next day, he arrives very early at the hard-to-find address down by the docks. The woman brings him in, but doesn’t show him the ‘patient’ right away. There’s a short pause, and then she leads him up to the bedroom where a man lies on the bed. He appears to have been hung, and life is quite extinct. Then things take a turn for the worse, as a violent thug arrives, banging on the door demanding to be let in. The woman explained that this thug was responsible for her son’s death. The two men had become involved in some burglary, and during it a security guard was killed. Her son was caught and convicted of the murder, while the man who had actually done it got off scot free. This was the man who was banging on the door, although when he got in and confronted them both, he told a different story. His version had the son killing the guard, but his own actions suggested a homicidal streak which made it more likely he was the guilty party.

Then the story changes completely, as the doctor is told to look closely at the dead man, and asked if he recognises him. He doesn’t, but it’s not surprising, as he’s never met his fiancée’s brother. It turns out that the dead man is indeed the brother of the doctor’s fiancée, lured to London by a forged letter which appeared to be from the doctor, inviting the brother down to London to see for himself the doctor’s lovely lodgings, and killed just before the doctor himself entered the room. The trap has been set – the dead man, and the doctor’s arrival just before he died, will make it look as if the doctor killed him in order to marry his fiancée without needing the brother’s consent. The forged letter, in the doctor’s own handwriting, will clinch the deal. But who has set this trap?

Well, it takes a little while, but the thug reveals himself to be a man who deeply loved the previous fiancée whom the doctor jilted. Once rejected, the young lady apparently pined away, and this revenge was plotted by the lover and the young lady’s mother, the elderly lady in the veil. The mother then began to criticise the doctor, telling him that she’d been happy with the way her daughter treated her, and asking him what it was that she had said which had made the doctor break off the engagement. Well, it was all too unlikely for me, and it wasn’t long before the old lady was exposed as the young lady, and the similarity with Fatal Attraction became clear. Naturally, she’d killed off her mother, by leaving her food outside her door so she starved to death, but she’s still obsessed with knowing what her mother had said that affected the doctor so much he broke off the engagement. He assures her there wasn’t anything, just her treatment of her mother, but she’s well gone by now. There’s a mad chase outside the house, and then first the lover, then the deranged ex-fiancée end up in the river. Whew.

The final twists and turns were enjoyable enough, but the piece could do with some serious cutting to make it more tense. The performances were good enough, and I’d be happy to see future adaptations by this company.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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