THE DRUM, THEATRE ROYAL PLYMOUTH – 23 February 2019
YOU STUPID DARKNESS BY SAM STEINER
RUNNING TIME 2 hour 15 minutes – one interval
Theatre Royal Plymouth Box Office – 01752 267222
REVIEW – CORMAC RICHARDS – 12 FEBRUARY 2019
The concept of people running a helpline who are actually in need of help themselves is not a new one, but maybe setting it in some kind of apocalyptic future is. The volunteers at the Brightline Helpline arrive at work wearing gasmasks and discuss various disasters that have befallen Earth in between taking calls from people who need someone to talk to. As the world is apparently falling apart so is the office in which they exist each Tuesday evening.
The four volunteers comprise the heavily-pregnant Frances, who runs the organisation, always with a smile – on the outside at least; talkative and sensitive Angie; straight-talking and weary Jon and work-experience, innocent schoolboy Joey. They are a disparate, desperate group as they battle freak callers and genuinely terrified people.
It is indeed an interesting and potentially affecting scenario and played out on an excellent set by Amy Jane Cook, which is crumbling before our eyes and, by the end of the play, is flooded and without electricity. The feeling of foreboding is brilliantly realised by the lighting design of Peter Small and the sound design of Dominic Kennedy. Flashes and instant blackouts abound as does the sound of rushing wind and carefully chosen music – not least the hollow sounds of Leonard Cohen in the final scene.
The performances from the quartet are universally excellent. Becci Gemmell as Frances is bright, breezy and organised but with marital and motherhood issues – when asked if she regrets becoming pregnant, she responds in the negative, but one is left assuming she is terrified to bring children into a failing world. Jon also appears to be having relationship issues and disguises his emotion with bravado and outward confidence – an excellent performance from David Carlyle. Lydia Larson provides Angie with a lovely warmth and sensitivity and her breakdown at the end of the first half is one of the few affecting moments in the play. Andrew Finnigan is a stand out as the naïve Joey. For a young performer this is a performance of great maturity and nuance – he is definitely one to watch for the future.
James Grieve directs the play with care and consideration and gets a great deal out of his production team. The script by Sam Steiner is actually printed in a landscape format in order to clearly display the many conversations that happen simultaneously – something which the performers handle brilliantly. However, the audience is only given fleeting information about the state of the world outside the office and so we are left in our own darkness about how bad things are – for most of the play life seems to be continuing as normal. The lengthy first half raises the question of ‘where is this all leading?’ Something which was really not answered in the second half except in the most subtle of fashions which felt unsatisfactory – the play just fizzles out; maybe the writer ran out of ideas; maybe it was a motif for the Earth fizzling out. What I found most frustrating was the lack of emotional engagement with the play. The back stories of the characters were too sketchy for us to be involved with and so they could only ever come across as somewhat superficial. As a result, the play is too long. There is much humour in the story and some of the audience were given to produce gales of laughter – whereas I found it a sad humour, an uncomfortable humour.
There is much to admire in ‘You Stupid Darkness’, but the shortcomings of the script clouded the excellent production.
Jon – David Carlyle
Joey – Andrew Finnigan
Frances – Becci Gemmell
Angie – Lydia Larson
Writer – Sam Steiner
Director – James Grieve
Designer – Amy Jane Cook
Lighting Design – Peter Small
Sound Design – Dominic Kennedy
Photo Credit – Matt Austin
A Paines Plough and Theatre Royal Plymouth Production