A talented group of actors do their best in the most hideous of circumstances.
Southwark Playhouse, London, until February 22
Sir Christopher Lee once told me that all actors get to appear in terrible productions every now and again, but the trick is never to be terrible in them. The late actor’s sage words occurred to me as I sat through Sam Steiner’s new play You Stupid Darkness!
This is a real oddity which does require a lot of explanation, but it’s hard to know where to begin. The title happens to come from an old Peanuts cartoon that bemoaned night time. Best not fret too much about that, however, as it appears to have emerged from a random play title selector app.
The setting is a dystopian future in which everyone has to don gas masks outdoors – possibly after some kind of nuclear apocalypse, but this is not actually spelt out. Whatever has happened, it’s not been so awful that the electricity doesn’t work. The lights go on, albeit intermittently, and so does the kettle. It’s also perfectly okay to drink the water and breathe normally inside buildings.
The characters work in the Brightline call centre – so it’s fair to assume the telephones work, too – where the remorsefully cheerful and heavily pregnant Frances (Jenni Maitland) tries to keep morale up among her three members of staff: gay and bearded Jon (Andy Rush), a strange singleton named Angie (Lydia Larson) and her new work experience lad, Joey (Andrew Finnigan).
They are in the business of trying to cheer up occasionally suicidal callers – or at least provide them with someone to talk to – and I suppose the premise isn’t all that terrible, if not so original. There has already been a fine play written about life in a call centre – Anupama Chandrasekhar’s Disconnect – but even that couldn’t entirely overcome the obvious technical problem of having actors playing out scenes to unseen interlocutors.
The director James Grieve does what he can to try to make something of what Steiner has written, even flooding the stage with water towards the end and utilising fizzing strobe lighting a great deal. Sometimes his actors perform in total darkness. It is, alas, an all but impenetrable story – with no obvious beginning or end – and arguably, too, it’s unstageable. It’s a crying shame because if ever a play about depressed people living in a dystopian world had resonance, then this, surely, is it, Still, the actors keep true to Sir Christopher’s golden rule and do their very best in the most hideous of circumstances.
Maitland is deliciously annoying as the smiley office matriarch who goes in for pointless slogans and team-building exercises that involve balls.
It has, too, a genuine star in the making in Finnigan. The youngster’s theatre credits thus far may amount to barely a few lines that touchingly include “commercials for M&S and Oatibix”, but he is, for all that, utterly believable as the mystified newcomer trying to make sense of both the demented people who phone in and his weird work colleagues. He has that quality all the best actors possess: he never looks like he’s acting.