Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Theatre review: The Blackest Black

Abi (Charity Wakefield) is an English artist who's managed to get sponsorship to spend time at an observatory in the middle of the Arizona desert, to create artworks inspired by the exploration of space. Even before we meet him, we can tell from the way Abi huffs about the arrogance of the "spaceman" that she has feelings for him, and when astronomer Martin (John Light) does appear it's quickly made clear that the two have been sleeping together. As Martin settles in for a night of observations crucial to his research, Abi tries to force the married scientist to engage with her world-view, while he resolutely plays his cards close to his chest. As these two big personalities clash, the timid technician Chuck (Ian Bonar) gets caught up in the middle of their drama, with potentially tragic consequences.

Jeremy Brock's The Blackest Black kicks the year off at Hampstead's Downstairs space, and centres around two characters it's hard to like: Martin is the very picture of the cold, breathtakingly arrogant scientist, while Abi is the flightiest kind of self-proclaimed artist, her talent dubious and her earnestly-spouted philosophies a bunch of cobbled-together hippie clichés.

What stops this from making the situation unwatchable is the unusual, dreamy lyricism of the piece, brought out strongly in Michael Longhurst's intimate production. Much of the relationship is played out in awkward silence, punctuated by Emma Laxton's excellent sound design, which builds atmosphere both in the use of sound effects (the sound of the giant telescope moving overhead really gives a sense of location to the cramped office full of techinical equipment) and canny music choices.

Often when small theatres like Hampstead Downstairs ask the audience to vacate the auditorium for an interval set change, you'll return to find one chair has been moved two inches to the right, but here Oliver Townsend's traverse is gutted in time for the second act, taking us to Abi's almost apocalyptic squat/studio. This act is less successful, possibly because the closest thing to a normal character is gone, but more because it revolves around Abi's view of life and art, and the first half has already established that her philosophies are half-baked and juvenile, so it's hard to care. The play's theme is also distilled here more specifically to that of how art can coexist with science, and the trouble is it's a familiar theme that's been done before, and done better.

This act does, however, also contain a rather beautiful, almost balletic sequence of Abi and Martin collaborating on a piece of abstract art, a hypnotic scene that probably best encompasses the play's central argument and makes you remember that the director of Constellations is in charge here. It's a pity that Brock's play settles into a nasty case of Multiple Ending Syndrome that leaves a bad taste behind. It's worth remembering though that along the way The Blackest Black does try some very interesting ideas, even if not everything works.

The Blackest Black by Jeremy Brock is booking until the 8th of February at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval

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