Southwark Playhouse – until 22 February 2020
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Every Wednesday morning, between 12 and 4 a.m., 4 people man the phone lines of Brightline, fielding calls from people who need to talk through their problems, as well as a few perverts. Connecting with strangers who are in despair is hard enough, but Sam Steiner’s bittersweet comedy takes place in a world that is nearing the end. The characters wear gasmasks to go outside, and snippets of information about the toxic state of the ocean and lack of trees are included, as well as descriptions of bridges and places that “went down”.
In this world where there is obviously no long term future, seventeen year old Joey (Andrew Finnigan) still has to do work experience, and determinedly upbeat Frances (Jenni Maitland) takes him under her wing. Also on the shift are sardonic Jon (Andy Rush) and sweet but manic Angie (Lydia Larson). The sense of impending doom outside the shabby room, which gradually becomes a flooded wreck is inescapable, but the four very different people seem to find purpose and community in their time together.
Amy Jane Cook’s set is a triumph, with tatty “inspirational” posters, clichéd word of the week boards and a jumble of furniture and technology from different eras. It could be a dismal office in any industrial park.
The first act is a little meandering, but it sets up the characters beautifully, dropping hints about their own lives and problems to explain why they turn up every week. Listening to just one side of their conversations is intriguing and Steiner often has all four on the phone creating an overlapping rhythm. There are some hilarious one liners and reactions from the talented cast, with Lydia Larson stealing every scene as wide eyed Angie. Her innocent excitement as she waxes lyrical about a tissue box makes her reaction to a devastating call even more heart wrenching. Jenni Maitland is wonderful as the warm but brittle Frances, spouting jargon and clichés as she keeps the centre running, but finally cracking her mask of cheerful efficiency as she talks about her pregnancy. Andy Rush gives a fantastic nuanced performance as frustrated Jon, with his eventual outburst, and trombone recital, leaving you laughing and sobbing. Andrew Finnigan is wonderfully still and awkward as Joey, with the characters warmth and naive wisdom gradually shining through.
The dark humour and ridiculous normality found in extreme circumstances lifts Steiner’s play out of the darkness, and the warm glow of candlelight as the play ends is matched by the warm glow of compassion and community the characters embody. The explanation of the play’s title can’t fail to bring a nostalgic smile, and even if some people find this a little trite, we all need a little light in dark times.
Hilarious and moving in equal measure, You Stupid Darkness! is a must see production