“There’s a lot to like in the gentleness of Steiner’s script, but it’s a slow burn that’s really too slow”
In a time of political chaos, social turmoil, and environmental catastrophe, it’s easy to feel like the end of the world is right around the corner. It’s no surprise apocalypse stories feel particularly relevant right now.
Sam Steiner’s play, directed by James Grieve, is set in a future, disintegrating Britain. People are more-or-less keeping calm and carrying on despite toxic air, power outages, bridges collapsing, and buildings crumbling. The disaster is never specified – we don’t know whether this is the aftermath of WWIII, the effects of unchecked climate change, or both – but we do know trees are falling and the sea has turned viscous.
Four volunteers meet in a dilapidated call centre one night a week to run an emotional support helpline. Their job is to provide reassurance, although they’re barely holding it together themselves. On top of the world falling apart, Frances (Jenni Maitland) is heavily pregnant at a time when pregnancy is considered misguided or radically optimistic. Jon (Andy Rush) is going through a rough patch in his marriage. Angie (Lydia Larson) makes the best of her difficult upbringing. Joey (Andrew Finnigan), seventeen years old, is facing what feels like a pointless question of applying for university.
It may sound bleak, but Steiner handles the dark subject matter with a refreshingly light touch. While the apocalypse rages outside, the Brightline volunteers do their best to simply get on with the day. They hang up their gas masks when they arrive, attempt to make coffee without a working kettle, deal with perverts on the phones, and reluctantly participate in Frances’ positivity exercises.
The play is a series of small moments. Steiner gives us little window-like scenes through which we see the characters try to make connections with the people on the phones and each other, conversations hinting at personal lives and troubles beyond the office walls. There’s a lot to like in the gentleness of Steiner’s script, but it’s a slow burn that’s really too slow. Without much in the way of story, the two-hour runtime feels very long. Steiner’s scenes may be delicate and perceptive, but they lack momentum. And while the characters are strong, and well-performed by a talented cast, the show needs the backbone of a plot to help support its length.
Amy Jane Cook’s astute design presents the call centre as a little haven from the desolation outside, held together purely by blind optimism and denial. Everywhere signs of deterioration are refusing to be acknowledged. Gaping holes in the walls are covered up by motivational posters. Frances stubbornly tacks them back up each time they fall down. A whiteboard enthusiastically displays the word of the week (‘Communication’ ‘Optimism’). Intense storm winds blowing snow-like debris occasionally blast open the door. When the call centre floods, the stage fills with water. But when Frances fills the space with candles, the scene conveys a powerful sense of hope. The message of perseverance, resilience, and hope, no matter how irrational, will undoubtedly resonate with anyone feeling overwhelmed by the world today.
You Stupid Darkness! is a show full of heart and humour about the end of the world. A distinctive, insightful script with something to say – it’s a shame it’s missing a trick.
“a fantastically unpredictable play – deeply unsettling its audience one moment and then having them roar with cathartic laughter the next”
John Webber’s debut play immediately makes a strong, lasting impression, bursting onto the Theatre503 stage with all the boxes for a winning production ticked and making me wonder why we haven’t come across Webber sooner. It packs high drama, nail-biting tension and po-faced hilarity into one 80 minute two-hander, paired beautifully with a production design that strikes the optimum balance between simplicity and ingenuity – Lizzy Leech (set/costume), Dominic Brennan (sound) and Peter Small (lighting) are to be applauded for their masterful touch here.
Spiderfly follows the story of Esther (Lia Burge), who is still traumatised by her sister Rachel’s death and wants answers from Keith (Matt Whitchurch), the man convicted of and who pleaded not guilty to Rachel’s murder. A blossoming romance with Chris (also Whitchurch) is tested as Esther allows herself to be drawn into Keith’s unsettling world; her dogged determination for truth manifesting in subsequent visits where the two form a dangerous bond. More and more we watch in fascinated horror as Keith’s effect on Esther’s own life outside the visits becomes more profound, and we wonder whether she will fall completely under his spell before finding the closure she so desperately seeks.
It’s a fantastically unpredictable play – deeply unsettling its audience one moment and then having them roar with cathartic laughter the next. A structure where the finer details and context of the plot are drip-fed in a way that gives just enough information to know what’s going on but still maintaining an air of mysterious suspense is part of why Spiderfly remains entirely gripping throughout – it really feels as though you are rewarded for sticking with it.
As for Burge and Whitchurch, they pay absolute dividends to the text. The performances are so well observed you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d written it themselves – director Kirsty Patrick Ward has clearly done a fantastic job in eking out the rich morsels of detail for the characters. Esther’s deep-set trauma is painstakingly etched into everything the character does – never once does Burge lose this, even during the lighter scenes with Chris where despite her best efforts, Esther seems as though something is holding her back. It’s a highly sophisticated performance and never one-note, as the relatability of some of Esther’s lines (“I need to look happy. Nicotine-free, obviously”) thankfully maintain her sense of humour.
Whitchurch’s contrast between Keith and Chris is extremely impressive and in the earlier stages of the play I had to look closely just to check whether it really was the same actor playing both. The lovably awkward, put-his-foot-in-it-again Chris is a favourite of the audience and provides effective comic relief, however Keith is the character that stays with you. Whitchurch’s performance is absolutely chilling – Keith is often friendly and almost charming, but a deep undercurrent of violence is forever present. When his nastier side rears its head the character becomes genuinely terrifying, absolutely dripping with quiet menace. The last scene between Keith and Esther is truly a masterclass in acting and even by itself well worth watching Spiderfly for.
I have utmost confidence that this will not be the last we see of Webber – Spiderfly is absolutely spectacular and as a debut play blows all expectations out of the water.