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.

Out of Love at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

review-out-of-love-paines-plough-orange-tree-theatre

Out of Love

Orange Tree Theatre, 6th February 2018

The second of the three co-productions with Paines Plough and Theatre Clywd and, for me, somewhat more persuasive than Black Mountain (Black Mountain at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***), though very different in subject and scope. Mind you, in both cases, out the door at 7, a quick dramatic fix, and back home by 9ish for a cup of tea, is surely the perfect evening. Out of Love is from the pen of Elinor Cook and garnered acclaim last year at Edinburgh with this same creative team and cast.

Now the SO and I were not entirely persuaded by the recent Donmar Warehouse production of Lady From the Sea, which was adapted by Elinor Cook, though, on my part, this is because I like my Ibsen icy. (The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar Warehouse review ***). There is no doubt though that she is a writer who persuasively captures the experience of women. At least I think so, as it is tricky to judge from my perspective as a fat, old, privileged white bloke. I did learn a lot about the two characters, Lorna and Grace, at the heart of this play.

Now telling the story of two friends, throughout their lives, is not revolutionary. Especially when one escapes their roots and one remains. This, after all, lies at the heart of Elena Ferrante’s quartet, (though I accept there is a great deal more here to feast on), which April de Angelis and Melly Still so ingeniously brought to the stage last year (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****).

Elinor Cook though has shaken this up though by abandoning strict chronology. Instead we get a series of rapid, kaleidoscopic scenes which chart the women’s relationship with each other, with their parents, with their various partners and, poignantly, with Grace’s child, Martha. Grace is the feistier and more headstrong of the two, Lorna more measured and initially less confident. From the outset, a game of “weddings” in the park, we see that Lorna attracts more male attention, which fuels Grace’s jealously and protectiveness. Lorna has rejected her absent father but resents her stepfather’s attempts to cool the intensity of the friendship. Lorna’s academic success sees her go to university and build a career. Grace falls for local lad Mike and falls pregnant, and cannot follow Lorna’s path. This creates a gap between them that proves difficult to bridge.

Like I say, nothing exceptional in the plot. Yet Elinor Cook’s writing is so exact and so true to life that, together with the dynamic structure, we are fully drawn into the friendship. Katie Elin-Salt is very impressive as Grace, her outward show of gobbiness failing to conceal her wounded vulnerability. Sally Messham matches her showing how Lorna grows in confidence, and independence, as she pushes back against family, partners and, yes, Grace. Hasan Dixon has his work cut out playing the eight, count ’em, incidental male roles, but any marginal audience confusion in the first few minutes soon evaporates. No costume changes, no lighting or sound pyrotechnics, (in contrast to Black Mountain), so we are reliant on text and actors. Oh and some very nifty work from Movement director Jennifer Jackson to demarcate both characters and place.

So a frank, smart, poignant, realistic, if not naturalistic, portrait of a friendship, which creates a deep impressions, actually impressions, over its compact 70 minutes. Definitely worth a visit, there are a couple of weeks left to run, and, if you are anywhere close by, it would be a crime to miss it.

 

Black Mountain at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

hasan-dixon-and-katie-elinsalt-in-black-mountain_photo-credit-jonathan-keenan-4-600x350

Black Mountain

Orange Tree Theatre, 5th February 2018

The latest in a long string of ambitious, but not outrageously so, projects from the OT, this time commissioned in conjunction with trusty partners Theatre Clywd and Paines Plough. Three plays, in rep, from OT favourites, Brad Birch, Elinor Cook and Sarah McDonald-Hughes, with a cast of three, Hasan Dixon, Sally Messham and Katie Elin-Salt, directed by James Grieve.

Black Mountain is the third play I have seen from Brad Birch at the OT. Like its predecessors, The Brink and Even Stillness Breathes Slowly Against A Wall (Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre review), I was intrigued, engaged but not entirely convinced. Billed as a “tense, psychological thriller about betrayal and forgiveness” it certainly delivers on atmosphere. The intimate OT space was pumped full of dry ice and Peter Small’s lighting, and Dominic Kennedy’s sound, combined to convince me at least that we were holed up in some isolated cottage in the country. For this is where Rebecca (Katie Elin-Salt) and Paul (Hasan Dixon) have retired to to focus on repairing their relationship. Time to be honest and time to listen to each other, which they do, though with limited success. But, guess what, someone else is watching. Helen (Sally Messham) has turned up. Cue a twist or two, and strong strains of something in the woodshed.

Rebecca and Paul are sleeping separately. Any easy intimacy has disappeared. They are wary of each other and recrimination is their default mode of communication. Brad Birch’s dialogue is taut. He certainly captures Paul’s increasing paranoia and the anger that both women feel. Yet this also means that the relationships at the heart of the play don’t quite ring true. The plot, which to be fair, crackles, and the mood of the play, take precedence over the characters.

This is the impression I formed in the other two plays from Mr Birch that I have seen. The Brink presents a teacher who may, or may not, have discovered a bomb under his school. Even Stillness … sees a couple retreat from the world. All located in the world, but at the edge. I see he is currently working on a version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Both sound right up his street. I reckon he should have a crack at an all out Greek style bloodbath. That might be fun.