FringeReview UK 2020
Directed by James Grieve, Design by Amy Jane Cook and Lighting by Peter Small. Sound by Dominic Kennedy, Associate Designer Grace Venning, Movement by Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster. Director on placement Jonathan Bensusan Bash. Producers Kitty Wordsworth, Bellaray Bertrand-Webb. Till February 22nd.
Sometimes you feel a play’s been designed round a gag. At one point the beleaguered quartet staffing the phones of Brightline have to intone a mantra. To keep Brightline open ever-ready Frances, pulsing like a Duracell, does a deal with head office which means her team have to ask inane questions at the end of an outpouring. ‘So in the event of a nuclear catastrophe, would you be more or less likely to buy Hellman’s Mayonnaise?’
It’s towards the end of Sam Steiner’s You Stupid Darkness! that we discover the reason for this play’s title, set in a near-future where Samaritans meets Victoria Wood meets climate catastrophe and the end of civilisation. Keep talking. It’s a rather sweet Charlie Brown line, and no great reveal. It is though emblematic of a vein of British stoicism pushed to surreal limits. All corralled by coping seven-months pregnant Frances, so mumsy, so relentlessly cheerful you feel sure someone will strangle her.
But it’s not that kind of play, thankfully. Its dark is warm-hearted as climate catastrophe worsens, people fight through to staff every Tuesday with masks and tornado blasts of wind through the entrance; and later notice green mould on houses and peoples’ faces. Despite all this, You Stupid Darkness! is not only gentle, but redemptive.
In this revival of 2019’s premiere of the Paines Plough and Theatre Royal Plymouth production, Jenni Maitland takes over Frances, with a pinch of bath salts, someone maddeningly calming, with a preternatural way of turning round any situation to primary school ruffles. ‘I just think it’s, you know, important to look at the good things that are happening as well.’ That emphasis tells you everything.
Another new to the role is Andy Rush’s Jon, next senior, with a house his husband Andy wants to evacuate from as soon as possible. Jon wants to stay, and later goes camping, which has been unheard-of for decades. Of course he wears protective clothing.
Areas slowly become uninhabitable. Jon practices the trombone and under great provocation is persuaded to play all he knows, the Ode to Joy. It’s a kind of joy you’d not expect from Beethoven. Rush brings out Jon’s simmering sometimes dangerous pain, and a stubborn resistance to all that’s dying around him. It’s a complex role, brought off with an edge of the darkness he burls in with from his increasingly disturbed travels.
Lydia Larson returning as Angie is a daffy delight. There’s something off-kilter with this dog-dwelling solitary, and whilst the older pair have their relationships, it’s clear the younger are more isolated, with fewer opportunities to bond in the time they grew up.
Revealing too much of herself to distressed callers, Angie can’t help putting her foot in it, the way Larson plays her as someone slightly on the spectrum. Asking Frances of all people (a daughter of a long-gone empire) ‘Is your husband a heroin addict?’ is one of those filaments of hilarity Steiner studs across the play, arising from character.
He doesn’t end there though, which is why Steiner’s great strength is unfolding, letting each misfit explore the other. Angie explains: ’That’s really really good – ‘cos my mum was for a little while and when I was born they had to wean me off it and I just had to stay in this glass box for like a month and a half and apparently it made my snot really weird…. So I think that like… while the baby is still inside you it’d be really good if you didn’t have any heroin.’ Somewhere Wood’s laughing with silver bells.
Yet it’s a caller to Angie that provides the most harrowing scene of all, before the interval on Week Three of the five Tuesdays that stud this narrative. Larson and Maitland are quite superb.
Andrew Finnigan’s Joey is the one with the Charlie Brown reveal, a seventeen-year-old schoolboy (schools still exist) surprisingly let loose on the phones and perhaps unsurprisingly proving a natural. Clearly with the centre crumbling teenagers are welcome to shore it up. Steiner’s world suggests the familiar holding on by its fingernails – Jon and Joey warily question each other’s schools – and heartrending personal catastrophes, leaking through on phones.
Like Larson Finnigan reprises his role – his depiction of a boy gradually accelerating to adult in whatever time’s allotted to them: a gleam both show and characters need. Someone called Andy phones Joey; Jon glowers. The truth of it’s never quite revealed but Joey learns even more emphatically the value of discretion.
All four performances are beautifully realized, responsive to each other, which makes timing exquisite.
Directed by James Grieve, with design by Amy Jane Cook that’s a raised slice of death, quadrangle of peeling parqué black-and-white floor, a quartet of collapsable tables and chairs with old-style burgundy trim-phones, with upstage a corridor where posters peel off and collapse; and door which when open lets in blasts of climate change. Stage right a whiteboard with the week’s watchword stands as brightly as Frances thinks she does. Lighting’s by Peter Small where steady neon gives way to a deft stab of little candles in the last act. Sound’s by Dominic Kennedy, essentially the outdoors circling, with movement by Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster.
The plot’s over five Tuesdays, but you feel it’s far longer, not just because the two-and-a-half hours traversal is punctuated by long pauses and a near ten-minute scene with Frances in a sudden phone reveal about her children. She slowly lights candles in the last scene of all. The production is a bit too stretched for its plot-lite material which would still sing at fifteen minutes less; but you’re compelled throughout. There’s a welcome surprise, and at the last, with electricity gone, but callers needy, the Brightliners huddle reassurances. Steiner’s pitted all on unfolding and character; and if it’s a Chekhovian apocalypse, well Dr Astrov was warning us about all those trees.
Steiner’s created a gentle metaphor for coping. His drama’s bleakly funny, but with enough offstage narrative, flickers of tragedy, to make you see how redemptive kindness is, how you’d go out into the stupid darkness and buy a jar of mayonnaise. And brand they have left.