Brighton Year-Round 2022
Directed by Joseph Bentley, Stage Manager/Props Paul Charlton, DSM Martyn Coates. Original Music Ella Turk-Thompson. Set Design Construction and Painting Steven Adams, with Special Prop Construction (including as Oli actually says that square R2D2) Tom Williams; Set Construction Mimi Goddard, the Cast. Lighting Sound Design and Sound Operation Beverley Grover, Costumes Laura Johnston, Christine Fox, Photography Miles Davies. Till March 19th.
After twenty years in the industry Michael Dennis’ debut play yokes themes with a marvellous violence. The title manages to marry Auden – Dark Sublime quotes from a poem ‘The More Loving One’ – and the TV fantasy series it celebrates. Oh, and just about every late 1970s culture reference. We start with a chuckle too: the Thames Television theme.
There’s a whiff of Blake’s 7 homage in all this. It blatantly takes place at the same time (1979-81, slightly shorter than Blake’s 7) and we’re catapulted to 35 years on (more or less now). It’s very plausible, reminiscent of the way Sally Knyvette from Blake’s 7 was interviewed and persuaded to return to voice-overs of new episodes. Obsessive 21-year-old fan Oli (Robert Purchese) turns up invited at the door of Patti Griffiths, once the great ice-queen Ragana chasing a shadow-ruby; whatever you tell her about paradox minerals. Who’s straight-talking/drinking/fading actor Marianne Hobbs.
It opens so rationally, with best friend Kate (Tess Gill) being offered sweets (a ritual Marianne plies with everyone) and alcohol. A council worker, you wonder how their friendship’s endured forty years. We find out Marianne’s feelings aren’t what we’d expect from a planetary queen.
Marianne soon invites confidences too from Oli about his work crush at Waterstone’s in amongst reminiscing about the series to his recording device, about which episode took place in a disused car factory for the 500 fans and convention he’s planning in Walsall. And there’s an incomplete final episode, plus rediscovered script; we finally see them though poor Oli – amazed at the news – doesn’t.
But can fans really be friends? And as Oli later asks, can one still be friends with boy who then goes out with a bad carbon copy of you? He and Marianne seem to be, till after some really funny lines (‘bad at doors, that’s why I never toured’) a dinner party with Kate’s partner Suzanne (Kate Purnell) goes jealously wrong. Yet it was Marianne who revealed to Kate it was OK to be gay when she left her husband.
A play that so wittily skewers the industry Dennis works in also has much to say about LGBTQ identity, but does it delicately, and at one point with breathless sweet lyricism.
Directed by Joseph Bentley, Dennis’ debut is designed by Steven Adams with special props by Tom Williams. It’s an ingenious inside-out affair, greatly aided by lighting (more on that soon). There’s even shelving and ornaments and photos stage right, picked up to tell more narratives, all of which have to reverse to blankness later on.
A vast screen dominates, projecting everything from Dark Sublime logo, to a cosy window with the same wallpaper as the set gives to Marianne’s home. There’s a conference window, pinkish purplish retro-70s landscapes from the planet Zorg ingeniously imaged, and… Alexandra Palace for a summer idyll. It’s brilliantly suggestive and a real improvement – as is the set – on the 2019 original at Trafalgar Studios, by a well-known designer.
Elsewhere it’s mainly a chintzy small living from with that huge screen centre upstage (beaming flowery suburbia) centrally-placed over unremarkable furniture (save matching chair and chaise-long with the DS lozenge pattern) and panels in the DS lozenge design shown in the screen logo. So when lights change it’s a rather different affair. In the second half though everything reverses to stark white: both conference hotel and the Beyond. The bog-standard grey door with semi-circular glass now becomes sliding panels to allow all sorts of monsters in.
The space becomes outer space when lit in ghostly greens or reds by Beverley Grover, and it’s quite fantastical. Though the apotheosis bathing actors in ruby, emerald and amethyst might be the set-piece, Grover deploys light sizzling across the top of the stage, changing colour with an array of special effects. There’s a beguiling TV-theme composition by Ella Turk-Thompson and Laura Johnston’s and Christine Fox’s equally Blake-y costumes (and others equally not).
As Oli’s grand plans for a convention materialise as it were, Marianne’s drawn into exploring her identity. Scornful of the show that means so much to Oli she points out a director was showing off his Auden, and there’s a Boney M reference and so on. She in turn recalls playing Ibsen and Shakespeare whose ‘truth’ matters so much more to her. Though earlier there’s a purr that an old colleague’s not playing Cleopatra at the Globe, but a servant. Oli’s response is humbling. He learned everything cultural from Dark Sublime, it sent him to books.
There’s much more farce: scarlet monsters walking in suddenly for a pee (yes, groupies) are firmly ushered out again by Oli and Steven Adams’ Vykar (in reality Bob). Vykar punctuates the timewarp of the set in green light talking to Sarah Leedham’s exasperated northern ‘Voice of Kosley’ (another screen, grey with flipping lozenges) with increasing frequency.
Adams relishes the opportunity to bluster in 70s alpha-male wannabe with a set-piece on freedom that’s gloriously overlong as the set teeters on self-destruction. He’s equally at home as the 35 years-on lothario actor: an ancient parody of the man he never was. Finally we get all five live actors on stage in the 1981 finale. It’s wonderfully silly stuff, but parallels are opaque.
For such a knowing script – it’s drenched in the industry and delights in it – Dark Sublime is curiously structured. It’s clearly the work of an experienced screenwriter used to TV intercuts, who hasn’t worked in the theatre. Dialogue saves him. Dennis writes so well, indeed brilliantly, at a realistic level dealing with several sexual themes at once that you rather wish he’d left his monsters in aspic and left cameos to Adams’ apparating to bicker with Leedham’s northern soul of a computer.
Dennis freights his dialogue with a comically dense recall of what it was like for TV productions around 1980, as well as now. He can pastiche with the best of them, but his last sequence is too long as if attempting to justify the world he elsewhere invokes with schlock-sized aplomb.
Performances are exemplary. Griffiths revels in doing most work – she’s barely offstage, and when she is in the first two scenes of Act 2 you feel Dennis consciously makes up for lost time with other characters; luckily this allows rich dialogue, even if it does meander.
Griffiths modulates from warmth towards Oli – though she can be pragmatically ruthless too – to jealous pettiness with Gill’s Kate and her new lover, Suzanne. Griffiths’ set-piece assault on Gill and Purnell – with Purchese’s shrinking Oli trying to mimic a pot-plant – is a highpoint of this production, viscerally realised.
Gill’s superb as Kate, through testy to tender friend, to a different relaxed work-goss lover of Suzanne’s as she avoids topics she must bring up. All set as an idyll in front of Alexandra Palace that never slackens: Purnell and Gill inhabit these characters in their single long scene as if they’re the centrepiece.
Purnell, the contented generous finance expert Suzanne, exudes someone centred: she leaves work and past behind, generously shows Kate she can love two people differently.
Purchese makes a superbly confident Oli, blossoming from star-struck awkwardness to confidante to exuberantly soaring MC at the conference (here getting audience participation) and back to uncertainty in the green room.
When in deliciously jumped-up jump-suits Griffiths, Gill, Adams. and Purnell turn up the right volume of bonkers braggadoccio as required. Then Purchese as Vol bursts on the scene.
Oli’s story fades at the end and though in the original he recites the Auden poem it added little beyond the pathos of rejection, not quite what Auden meant. It’s rightly cut here. Four Weddings it ain’t! The play needs trimming. But Dennis’ debut is a mostly assured one notwithstanding the ten minutes of daft sublime. Structurally it tends to evolve rather than develop, and pace is an issue the actors overcome by sheer sublimity and dispatch.
Nevertheless Dark Sublime has much to say about other things: the nature of fandom; why we hunt down cult programmes that encode all we aspire to simply because writers and producers throw in big themes, that mean more to the audience than those involved. Yet they have value as Oli found, escaping his environment.
Elsewhere Dennis exudes authority, wit, rendering complex sexual feeling and friendship with the grace of the everyday. That’s a precious gift, worth waiting for again with a bit more experience.
BLT’s production though improves on the premiere in both design values and sometimes in acting too. Audience participation is a welcome innovation (either that or I nodded at the Trafalgar!). It cuts the Auden, actors cut to the chase: only where it needs to does the admirable pace Bentley sets slow to a little sublimity. Do see this quirky, off-beat play given its finest outing so far.