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.

Radio at the Arcola Theatre review ****

Radio

Arcola Theatre, 25th June 2019

Never easy to work out what to sign up for at the Arcola Theatre since so much of quality and interest passes through the doors. So the Tourist has adopted a somewhat whimsical approach and given up worrying too much if he misses the cream of its output, However this was different. I was very taken with Al Smith’s take on Diary of a Madman at the Gate and thus more annoyed that I missed his last effort, Harrogate, at the Royal Court, So this, a revival of one of his first plays, written when he was a regular for Holby City and Eastenders, was an opportunity not to be missed.

And, whilst I cannot imagine another way of playing Peter Shaffer’s gift of a part, Adam Gillen was a memorable Mozart in the NT Amadeus from 2016. For Mr Gillen it is who plays Charlie Fairbanks the “star” of Radio. As the blurb says, “Charlie Fairbanks was born in the dead centre of the United States at the deda centre of the 20th century. Americans are going to the Moon and Charlie’s sure he’ll be the first one three. But as he shines his spotlight on the Moon, so too does it illuminate the darker side to his nation’s history. Radio is a story about memory, love and spaceships“.

A pretty fair summary. From this notion Mr Smith spins a yarn that more than holds out attention for its 80 minutes or so running time even if it only hints at a critique of modern America’s inability to live up to its Dream. Adam Gillen’s Charlie is an optimist, brought up in Kansas, though his Dad moves the family around to ensure his tourist schtick, the house at the centre of the US from which he sells flags, is maintained. His dreams of being an astronaut, fuelled by the radio and the optimism of the 1950s and the Kennedy presidency, fade as he confronts the reality of the Vietnam War, the actual Moon landings and destitution as a veteran through the Nixon and Ford years.

The intricate text meanders but always illuminates, Josh Roche’s direction is never rushed, Sophie Thomas’s set is minimal, a skein of wires in red, white and blue and a few props and Peter Small’s lighting is similarly direct in the atmospheric downstairs space in the Arcola. So everything is focussed on Mr Gillen. There is more than a whiff of Forrest Gump in Charlie but his performance commits and so persuades us of Charlie’s brand of self-conscious sincerity, whilst still sketching out the supporting characters, Mum, Dad, girlfriend and so on. This kind of close-up monologue always takes guts on the part of the actor, especially when playing an Everyman on to which the external world is projected, but AG, bar a few accent slips, is utterly convincing.

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.