Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Theatre review: You Stupid Darkness!

Andy Rush and Andrew Finnigan in a play together at last, and it's not written by Tom Wells? It must be the End of Days. In Sam Steiner's strangely positive tragicomedy You Stupid Darkness! it actually is the End of Days, but rather than a single explosive event this is a slow-burning Apocalypse that's very gradually but inexorably rolling out across the world. The unnamed event has left the air toxic; next to parts of the city that are still liveable are no-go areas, the (presumably quarantined) residents horribly infected. Whole towns get suddenly wiped out and one day all the trees fell down, but it's not all over quite yet, and until it is everyone might as well just get on with their lives. So 17-year-old Joey (Finnigan) still has to get his work experience credit for school, and every Tuesday night goes to Brightline, a late-night helpline where he and three other volunteers take calls from people struggling to cope with Everything That’s Happening.

The office is dilapidated (Amy Jane Cook’s set decays as the play goes on) and all the equipment seems to be decades old, but it’s still a sanctuary of sorts, where the four volunteers can take off their gas masks for a few hours, have a doughnut and a cup of tea, and perhaps find as much comfort in the job as the people who call in are looking for.

This branch is run by Frances (Jenni Maitland,) who pushes everyone through the night with an unwavering faith that what they’re doing is worthwhile, and the enthusiasm of the motivational posters that keep falling off the wall. In contrast Jon (Rush, beard present) seems permanently on the verge of complete despair; he’s quietly horrified by the fact that Frances is pregnant, and she’s worried his mood will infect Joey, who’s having to keep pretending that he might actually have a future worth continuing to go to school for. On the surface Angie (Lydia Larson) is the most positive member of the team, who struggles to stick to the rules about staying anonymous, chatting to callers about her own life and her dog; she’s also probably the most fragile and lonely out of them though, the only one not to have any family in the outside world.

It’s a setup that would naturally lend itself to a rather cynical play about rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, but You Stupid Darkness! (which takes its title from a Peanuts strip and shares something of its bittersweet, wistful tone) instead celebrates it as something gloriously human: There’s zero optimism that the ongoing Apocalypse will come to anything other than the inevitable conclusion, but endless optimism about the characters’ resilience and ability to band together until the very end. James Grieve’s production is maybe a little bit too low-key, making the show feel slightly too long, but it is, after all, a play about finding happiness in the little things, and this is where the focus is.

And it’s also where most of the comedy comes from: There are definitely moments of slowly-building drama, often based around the helpline calls; like Angie’s crushing realisation that her caller is long past her ability to help, or Joey figuring out that the man he’s talking to, whose partner is driving him to despair, is actually Jon’s husband. But the prevailing mood is of gentle comedy, with memorable moments including Angie waxing lyrical about the invention of the tissue box, Jon attempting to make a cup of tea by holding matches under a mug once the kettle stops working, and the broader comedy of his attempt to serenade the others on the trombone (although the lack of a “tromboning” joke is a bit of an oversight.) This is an improbably charming Apocalypse, and if we do have to go down in flames there’s worse ways to go than with these four on the other end of the line.

You Stupid Darkness! by Sam Steiner is booking until the 22nd of February at Southwark Playhouse’s Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Ali Wright.

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