FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Andrew Keats, Michael Dennis’ debut play is designed by Tim McQuillan-Wright, lit by Neill Brinkworth, with composition by Matthew Strachan and sound envelope by Sarah Weltman with Sara Hutchinson’s videography and Ugne Dainuté’s costumes.
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. Those that aren’t are piped in first by adverts from ITV before the show and during the interval. And we do get that poem at the end, with its reflection on who the more loving one is.
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 (Kwaku Mills) turns up invited at the door of Marina Sirtis, once the great Ragana. Who’s straight-talking/drinking fading actor Marianne Hobbs.
It opens so rationally, with best friend Kate, Jacqueline King being offered sweets (a ritual Marianne plies with everyone) and alcohol. A council worker, you wonder how their friendship’s endured for so long. 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.
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 (Sophie Ward) 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 abut LGBTQ identity, but does it delicately, and at one point with breathless sweet lyricism.
Directed by Andrew Keats, Dennis’ debut play is designed by Tim McQuillan-Wright, mainly a realistic somewhat old-fashioned small living from with a TV centrally-placed over unremarkable furniture (save a British flag chaise-long) and a door stage-left that alter on becomes anything but: its semi-circular glass apertures flash like starship warnings when lights change. There’s another door that allows all sorts of monsters in, with dry ice. The space becomes outer space when lit in ghostly greens or reds by Neill Brinkworth, with composition by Matthew Strachan and sound envelope by Sarah Weltman with Sara Hutchinson’s retro-videography and Ugne Dainuté’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. Oli’s response is humbling. He learned everything cultural from Dark Sublime, it sent him to books.
There’s much more farce: monsters walking in suddenly are firmly ushered out again by Oli (groupies) and Simon Thorp’s Vykar (in reality Bob) punctuates the timewarp of the set in green light talking to Mike Gattis’ ‘Voice of Kosley’ with increasing frequency. Finally we get all five live actors on stage in the 1981 finale. It’s wonderfully silly stuff, but its parallels are opaque.
For such a knowing script – it’s drenched in the industry and delights in it – Dark Sublime is curiously structured. 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 Thorp’s apparating to bicker with Gatiss. Dens 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. Sirtis revels in doing most work – she’s barely offstage. Mills makes a very confident newcomer, and King, Thorp and Ward exude the right amount of assurance or absurdity as required.
Oli’s story fades at the end and though he recites the poem it’s worth asking why. But Dennis’ debut is a wholly assured one notwithstanding the five minutes of daft sublime. The play has much to say about other things, like the nature of fandom, and 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 he exudes authority, wit, and renders complex sexual feeling and friendship with the grace of the everyday. That’s a precious gift, worth waiting for again.