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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
The Dark
by Lizzie Loveridge

They can't show affection but they can see in the dark. (comment about Autistic children)
--- Elsie
The Dark
The Company (Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
After her last play Humble Boy went all the way to New York (although missing Simon Russell Beale it did less well than with him in London) Charlotte Jones gives the Donmar Warehouse the World Premiere of her new play, The Dark. It is a slice of rather dismal urban life, portraits of people who live close to each other in proximity but far away in terms of interaction deeper than a cursory "Good morning".

The Dark focuses on three families who live in a London street of Victorian terraced houses. There are pensioner and retired, emergency services telephonist Elsie (Siân Phillips) and her homosexual son John (Stuart McQuarrie) who is being taunted with accusations of paedophilia. Louisa (Anastasia Hille) and Barnaby (Matt Bardock) have a new baby after losing their first child to sudden infant death syndrome. Brian (Roger Lloyd-Pack) and his wife Janet (Brid Brennan) have an unhappy marriage and a teenage son Josh (Andrew Turner) who communicates not with them but with people in chat rooms on his computer. "You can chat online with strangers in Kwala Lumpur but you don't have the grace to thank me for your supper". She leaves Josh's meals outside his closed door. An electricity cut in the street results in a change of behaviour and in the dark their difficulties come to a head as they go on a street walkabout to the accompaniment of eerie music.

Some of the happenings in "the dark" are a stretch. For instance, Barnaby's "zipless" sexual encounter with Janet; unlikely I thought. Others I found veering towards the trite. Josh, dressed like a burglar, enters Louisa's house and looks as if he might take the baby. Louisa is obviously suffering from post-natal depression compounded by the cot death of her first child. Elsie comes to terms with her son's sexual orientation. The outcomes are rather too neat and the play's effect is less powerful and not gritty.

Siân Philip's working class Elsie is the comic star of the play with many good one liners, really modern day instances of the Mrs Malaprop syndrome. "The MRA bug in hospitals" (Moral Re-Armament) she witters on about rather than the killer bug MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus). Anastasia Hille's sleep deprived mother is memorable as a desperate woman not coping. Stuart McQuarrie is a sympathetic gay man who is victimised by kids in the street and misunderstood by his intransigent mother.

I liked the scenes when different couples talk together in a kind of chorus, "My own wife. My own mother. My own child." they echo each other. Towards the end too, they all come together to share the candlelight and introduce themselves in a rather polite and forced way, a manner we reserve for first encounters. Jones has a good ear for dialogue but the most interesting aspect of The Dark is Anna Mackmin's direction of overlapping scenes.

Lez Brotherston's multi-venued set is a monochromatic slice across several houses in the same street. The crowded set is sometimes lit dark green, sometimes charcoal grey. Everything from the lavatory to the table and chairs and floor boards are stained or mottle painted in a dark indeterminate shade forming a dingy surround for what is sadly a rather dismal play.

The Dark is essentially a Fringe play which says little more than life in the city is an isolating and alienating experience. The performances raise the play but the overall impression I had was one of disappointment.

The Dark
Written by Charlotte Jones
Directed by Anna Mackmin

Starring: Siân Phillips, Anastasia Hille
With: Stuart McQuarrie, Brid Brennan, Roger Lloyd Pack, Andrew Turner, Matt Bardock
Designer: Lez Brotherston
Lighting Designer: David Hersey
Sound: Gareth Fry
Choreography: Scarlett Mackmin
Running time: One hour twenty minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6622
Booking to 24th April 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th March 2004 matinée performance at the Donmar Warehouse Earlham Street London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden)
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