You Stupid Darkness!
By Sam Steiner.
Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD to 22 February 2020.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Tues & Sat 3pm.
Runs 2hr 20 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 0207407 0234.
Review: William Russell 21 January.
Originally staged in Plymouth in February last year, where it was reviewed by Cormack Richards, this Paines Plough production of Steiner’s apocalypse now play has arrived for a London season at Southwark Playhouse giving the great and the good of the national press a chance to review it. They can speak for themselves. I saw it on the second night and found little reason to disagree with what Richards said about the performances and especially that the piece simply “fizzles out.” It has two new cast members but pretty well the same set and opens with a very long scene in which everyone is speaking at the same time, which they do brilliantly but unfortunately it does not mean that the audience knows what is going on as a babble of sound crashes towards it. For that you need to have read the book- come programme which conveniently informs us that the world is falling apart – we have sussed that because the characters enter wearing gas masks as the air outside is obviously not good – and we are in a call centre called Brightline sometime in the 1980s where four volunteers meet on a Tuesday to chat to strangers and offer them comfort.
That established the play lets each character time to emerge from the chaos of conversation but in terms of a plot it has nowhere to go and takes far too long getting there. It could all have been dealt with in a straight no interval 90 minutes. What is not in doubt is that the playing is very good indeed with Andrew Finnegan and Lydia Larson from the original cast as the gangling teenager on work experience and a warm hearted young woman who loves chatting both pitch perfect and deserving the praise Richards gave them. The seniors are the woman in charge, Frances, played by Jenni Maitland, and Jon, a thirty something gay man, played by Andy Rush. Frances, who is heavily pregnant, is the sort of woman who believes in group hugs, playing group games – she produces a large medicine ball for the team to play with – party hats, and team treats like cakes or sandwiches. It is a beautifully detailed performance by Maitland of someone staring at disaster and ignoring it as best she can – that pregnancy is, in the circumstances, a cry of defiance.
Rush as Jon is equally good and the scene when he is goaded into playing his trombone, a hobby imposed by his husband to stop him smoking, is as funny and heartbreaking a moment as one will ever see, although when his husband calls the help line for reassurance and he overhears the call it comes pretty close. The impending disaster is shown by the way services collapse, the kettle blows up, the lights fuse – it ends not in darkness but a blaze of fairy lights – things start to fall off the walls and there is an unexplained flood which leaves them all up to their ankles in water but still taking calls. It is saying something about the human ability to face up to the disasters of life, but it all takes too long, there is no plot or story line to speak of, and while the chat is good and the details of their very different private lives interesting enough the cross talking idea destroys some of it coming over to the audience. Things are getting worse but people will carry on regardless and Armageddon is still just round the corner rather than there, but a little closer.
Good on mood, well directed and performed, but ultimately confusing and messy, the piece really needed a good shaking or possibly, since it started a year ago, some second thought from writer and director before this London season.
Frances: Jenni Maitland.
Jon: Andy Rush.
Angie: Lydia Larson.
Joey: Andrew Finnegan.
Director: James Grieve.
Design: Amy Jane Cook.
Lighting: Peter Small.
Sound: Dominic Kennedy.
Movement: Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster.
Costume Supervisor: Rosie Whiting.
Production Photograph: Al Wright.