The Dark Room

(c) Alex Brenner
The Dark Room
Photo credit: Alex Brenner

The latest offering at south west London’s Theatre503 is the UK première of Angela Betzien’s play The Dark Room, brought to the stage by Paperbark Theatre Company in association with the new company Thinking Aloud (and Theatre503 itself). It was first performed in Australia a few years ago, where it won Best New Australian Work at the 2011 Sydney Theatre Awards. This production is also working with the NSPCC; Christmas is a key time of year for the charity, so it is vital to reach out in as many ways as possible to raise awareness of their work and the services they provide (including Childline). Another part of their Christmas campaign this year can be seen illuminating Oxford Street (and other town & city centres), as they have teamed up with some companies for Christmas light switch ons (#LightsOn).

The play focuses on five people at several different points in time in the same motel – and all linked together by one young man. Grace is a troubled child with a history of self-harm, who has just been taken into care again by social worker Anni. Stephen & Emma have just been to a wedding; pregnant Emma just wants to get away, but Stephen is intending on heading back out to continue the celebrations. Stephen also encounters both Anni (they know each other through work – he is a police officer) and Craig (his colleague) on separate occasions. Joseph links them: a teenage transvestite who died in suspicious circumstances, and continues to haunt some of the characters…

(c) Alex Brenner
The Dark Room
Photo credit: Alex Brenner

What is really clever about this play is how it manages to layer up the separate plots and points in time. There is one set (a cheap-looking motel room with a small bathroom and cupboard) and all the action takes place there, with many of the characters occupying the same space at the same time. Either they are left to brood or stand in the background as the next pair take precedence, or the scenes are split slightly and the same lines in separate scenes overlap. As well as drawing parallels between characters, it’s an incredible efficient way of moving the story along at pace and not relinquishing any momentum with lengthy scene transitions.

The play does well to highlight the vital work that social workers do, and how much trust is put in them by vulnerable young people – a trust more fragile than most as it can take so much more effort to earn it. There is a glimpse of the fractious relationship they can have with the police, as they seek to protect these children regardless of their circumstances. It also looks at bullying in a variety of forms (and within different institutions) and the disastrous & unexpected consequences it can have. The slight hint of the supernatural sets it off really well – helped in no small way by Will Monks’ impressive lighting design.

(c) Alex Brenner
The Dark Room
Photo credit: Alex Brenner

The cast are absolutely superb. Alasdair Craig immediately brings across the sense that Craig isn’t a particularly pleasant man – regardless of all the ways in which he seems to contribute to the community. This is most clear when he interacts with Joseph, portrayed with a kind of playful malice by Paul Adeyefa. Fiona Skinner shows a real humanity in Emma, collapsing into highly believable hysterics, whilst Tamlyn Henderson opposite her as Stephen has a great comic touch – as well as tackling the more serious moments with gusto.

Annabel Smith is full of frenzied energy, very much in the manner of an untamed beast, but also gives you a sense of Grace’s fragility at times. Her genuine joy at the thought of being given some sunflowers is heartwarming, and makes the rest of her behaviour all the more shocking and saddening. As Anni, Katy Brittain excels. She gives a real depth to her character, hinting at her own historic troubles and struggling with the complicated nature of the relationships she forges in her work.

(c) Alex Brenner
The Dark Room
Photo credit: Alex Brenner

My verdict? An important piece of work, creatively put together and ideal for the stage – absolutely worth a watch.

Rating: 4*


The Dark Room runs at Theatre503 until 2 December 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.

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