You Stupid Darkness! at the Southwark Playhouse review *****

You Stupid Darkness!

Southwark Playhouse, 28th January 2020

With a whimper not a bang. That’s how the world ends in Sam Steiner’s new play. Though, given where we are now, (and as many reviews of this play seem to demand), you might be forgiven for thinking our selfish species will want to engineer something more dramatic for the end of days. Except, of course, it won’t be the end of days. It will just be the end of us. An incredibly adaptable species that wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was, after a miniscule time on Earth engineered its own extinction, whilst, unforgivably, though there is nothing to forgive, taking most of the rest of the planet’s life with it.

We never know what exactly what is going on outside the room in which our four volunteers, Frances, Angie, Joey and Angie, come every Tuesday night to Brightline to offer comfort to strangers, Samaritans style, on the phone. But it isn’t good, the weather is awful, infrastructure is failing and the team turn up in gas masks. Everything is plainly not going to be OK, keeping calm and carrying on is the default, not the resolute, choice. The phones may still be working, donuts (and this would matter to me) are still on sale, daily routines are still being followed, but, if you are familiar with the analogy, the water temperature is increasing and the frog is being boiled.

Turns out that our four characters each face their own personal misfortunes and, despite their temperamental differences, turn to each other, as well as their callers, for solace. Frances (Jenni Maitland) leads the team, is the eternal optimist, dispensing management mumbo-jumbo, but, pregnant in an increasingly sterile world, petrified at what the future holds for her unborn child. Tense Joey (Andrew Finnigan) is wise beyond his years, Jon (Andy Rush), the fatalistic foil to Frances’s buoyancy, is trapped in a failing relationship and fragile Angie (some scene stealing from Lydia Larsen, until she exits for much of the second half, we don’t find out why), empathises with callers by opening up herself.

Sam Steiner wisely forces no grand narrative or formal experiment on his play. There is not much in the way of plot. Nothing very dramatic happens. There is no great resolution or even much of an ending beyond the backers of the helpline pulling their funding. The comedy, and pathos, flows naturally from the conversation. Amy Jane Cook’s set is similarly low-key. Lights turn off. Kettles fuse. Posters fall off walls. Paintwork is peeling. Dominic Kennedy’s sound design also limits gesture and director James Grieve is unafraid of the pause. This unhurried approach pays dividends though means that the energy of the production, like the lights (Peter Small), occasionally dips, and it wasn’t to everyone’s taste on a less than half full Tuesday matinee but it suited me (and judging by the laughter a handful of others). And, if as I suspect, Mr Steiner’s aim was to find optimism in the bleak mundane, he indutiably succeeded.

I now wish I has seen Sam Steiner’s last play, also realised through Paines Plough, King Kanye about a white woman who wakes up one day to discover she is Kanye West, and, prior to that, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, in which the conceit is that language itself is rationed. I an a sucker for concept and imagination and Mr Steiner seems to have the gift. And he can right dialogue to match. I will watch his future career with interest.

The Here and This and Now at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

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The Here and This and Now

Southwark Playhouse, 10th January 2017

OK homo sapiens. Enough with the exceptionalism. There is nothing special about you. Maybe you are more “intelligent” than any species that has inhabited the earth so far but you have only been around for a couple of hundred thousand years. Peanuts. You will likely be just background extinction, likely a consequence of your own selfish, insatiable behaviours. Annoyingly you will take a load more species with you. But your Holocene existence will barely register in earth history terms and you will be soon forgotten. Actually never remembered. And you will have proved pretty rubbish in terms of adapting to your environment for all your boasts if you can’t even manage a million years of existence.

So, whatever dystopian future awaits, no point getting too worked up about it. Worth trying to slow it down a bit but all your technology and institutions won’t prevent the inevitable.

Happy New Year.

Which brings me to THATAN. (I thought the acronym sounded suitably sci-fi and pharmacological, appropriate to the play). Southwark Playhouse has snapped up this and the forthcoming The War Has Not Yet Started from the Theatre Royal Plymouth. Great theatre, great city, great county. And, give or take a couple of flaws, it is well they did. For this latest offering from fashion journalist turned playwright, (and Plymouthian), Glenn Waldron, is, at its best, very, very funny. It kicks off with its four characters, Niall (Simon Darwen), Helen, (Becci Gemmell), Gemma (Tala Gouveia) and Robbie (Andy Rush), at an off-site (or away-day, take your pick, it is still one of modern Western capitalisms most unattractive inventions). It transpires they are sales reps for a pharma company. Niall, the boss, is making a pitch. The script they work from is excruciating but very funny. Newbie Gemma then has a faltering turn, followed by bolshie cynic Robbie, and finally the less assured, turning into hysterical, Helen. Mr Waldron’s observation here is truly acute, and because of this, his satire is bitingly effective. They are selling a useless drug for, prosaically, liver spots with minimal benefits in a desperate, faux-sincere way.

Then the gears switch. First Gemma and Robbie do a “what is life all about” dialogue, with background flirting. Slight but still effective, with its message of savouring the “special moments” in life. And then we roll forward to the 2020’s, post apocalypse, caused by, ta-dah, increased antibiotic resistance which has led to half the population popping its clogs. I won’t spoil the scene. Suffice to say that Mr Waldron gets away with this outrageous leap in tone, because, once again, his writing is laugh out loud funny. And best forget about Bill Paterson’s sonorous contribution at the very end.

The performances are uniformly perfectly pitched, Bob Bailey’s design does just about what it needs to do and Simon Stokes direction shows why his Plymouth stronghold is such a vital hub.

So forgive Glenn Waldron for joining the long list of playwrights wrestling with the “what will wipe us out” schtick and applaud the fact he has, at least, found a new scenario. Forgive the slightly clumsy shift in tone and banish any implausibilities which pop into your head. Just relish the very funny. black comedy that he has served up. And will him to find a way to take the tone he has expertly crafted in the first half of this 80 minute play and inject into another contemporary story. For that might result in something truly magnificent. I can now see I was an utter berk for missing his previous work, Natives, at this very venue. On the strength of this I hope it pops up elsewhere one day soon.