BWW Review: YOU STUPID DARKNESS!, Southwark Playhouse
Every Tuesday night, four volunteers gather in a drab branch of Brightline taking phone calls from strangers facing hardship. Outside, the world is falling apart. As they try to help the callers, they attempt to conceal their anxieties and fears while trying to deal with their own personal catastrophes.
Sam Steiner's latest play premiered at Theatre Royal Plymouth last year co-produced by Paines Plough and directed by James Grieve. The Southwark Playhouse transfer sees the company taking the stage by storm with a piece that's touching, comforting, funny, warm, and bright, but way too long for its contents. Running at 135 minutes with an interval, You Stupid Darkness! would be a perfect show if it were trimmed slightly and some details were reexamined.
The premise and foundation, the characters, and the message are all strong and exceptionally poignant and the sub-textual metaphors are even more so, which makes the relatively underwhelming elements of the production harder to swallow. The writer creates humans, fallible men and women who are treading water in a dystopic universe where people are growing mould on their eyelids, trees have disappeared, and everyone has to wear a gasmask to breathe outside.
Steiner doesn't give any direct information about the state of the Earth nor sets the action in any specific time and place, which Grieve embraces with Amy Jane Cook ambiguous design. Frances (Jenni Maitland), Jon (Andy Rush), Angie (Lydia Larson), and Joey (Andrew Finnigan) have very normal conversations that hide the day-to-day tragedy of a failing society.
Aspects of their lives and living conditions seep through their back-and-forths, but they rarely tackle the relevant and pressing question that one might have. The dialogue is largely inconsequential and some of it feels as if it's acting as filler to reach the running time mark. On one hand, the silly banter is exactly what's needed to counteract the apocalyptic climate but on the other, the fact that - even when they do address something candidly - it's seldom satisfactory.
Although the play drags, Steiner's writing is pacey enough to draw his audience in with his characters' idiosyncrasies and quirks (even though most of them aren't as meaty as they appear on the surface). Angie's excitability and chattiness is balanced by Jon's sardonic approach, while Joey's inexperience (he's there doing work experience) stands opposite Frances's positive, calm, and motherly nature.
The latter's pregnancy is yet another layer to Steiner's oxymoron. In You Stupid Darkness! living and existing constantly coexist with despair, and the life Frances carries is antipodal to the negativity and end-of-the-world vibe of the story. Grieve directs his company with apparent restraint.
The actors are collected, almost subdued by their roles's weariness and a future that's on the brink of destruction. Finnigan (who's reprising his role with Larson) is polite and careful as Joey, he goes from being an insecure and hesitant Samaritan to an effective and pragmatic figure.
As much as the more senior members of Brightline want to rein in Larson's bounciness, they're all delighted by the sunshine quality of Angie. Jon might be the most compelling character along with Frances; both leave plenty unsaid and carry colossal baggage that's hardly unloaded.
The director has some staging tricks up his sleeve that enliven the otherwise rather still production and add interest to the scene changes in particular. In all this, Brightline's health and safety policies might need to be reviewed as some baffling logical choices are made by the characters, like moving the desks topped with electrical phones towards a flooding instead of away from the puddles.
You Stupid Darkness! isn't a flawless play. It has, however, a human quality to it. It introduces characters who aren't going to change the world; it presents them as imperfect individuals who don't always do the right thing, they fail, they say the wrong words, but they try their hardest to make a difference in somebody else's life. It's overly long and the textual material isn't meaty enough to justify its length, but it's a hopeful reminder that life can be found in the darkest of places.
Image courtesy of Ali Wright