“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.
“Sometimes it’s like a fine vintage wine, in other places, it’s dusty and antiquated”
Southwark Playhouse starts the new year Stateside as it transports us over to the Windy City. Cops, a new play by Tony Tortora, focuses on personal conflicts and professional unrests.
Chicago, 1957. A time and place where change and betterment is on the horizon in every aspect of society. But the murky underworld of Mafia crime and dirty police corruption is hard to erase. Stan (Roger Alborough), Rosey (Daniel Francis), Eulee (James Sobol Kelly), and Foxy (Jack Flammiger) work together in the Police Department. They may be of different ages, ethnicities and social standings, but their joint disgruntled attitudes towards the work and each other bonds them together. They’re on the hunt to bring in a gangster-come-star witness, before the Mob gets their hands on him. However, the operation soon becomes trickier as the cops get more entangled in the thickening plot, whilst their lives and relationships with each other begin to crumble.
There’s definite Arthur Miller-type undertones to Tony Tortora’s writing. Stan, for example, is a downtrodden everyman, with only his job to live for, much like Miller’s Wille Loman from his masterpiece Death of a Salesman. Yet, like Foxy who yawns during a long all-night stake out, it’s hard to not want to do the same at times. The stake out scenes in particular move at a dirge-like pace. The dialogue may be fast moving, but any physical, engaging action comes in dribs and drabs. The storyline of mob violence and corruption in the police department promises being full of grit and suspense but is rather lacklustre in final execution. Tortora is excellent at nailing the vernacular and true day-to-day movements of a 1950’s cop, but for theatrical purposes, this doesn’t translate into being engaging enough.
Where Tortora and director Andy Jordan do shine is the examination of interactions between the intergenerational, interracial work colleagues. The office offers a dissection of society at the time. The throwaway un-PC comments, and racial nicknames flung around by Stan, reminds you how much things have changed since 1957, but also how relevant social injustice still is today.
The cast give near-faultless performances as each and everyone one are believable and truthful in their delivery. From the scenes of bantering office talk, to introverted moments of opening up their hearts, they balance the fine line between the two with utmost precision.
The set (designed by Anthony Lamble), accurately captures the look of an American cop shop of the 1950’s. Maps, documents and photographic evidence plaster the walls. Archaic ash trays are dotted everywhere. The four detectives have their own desk. A charming, subtle touch from Lamble is that each workspace is arranged in the style of each characters personality. Stan’s is messy and full of paperwork, Rosey’s impeccably clean and organised. The back half of the stage is exposed brickwork and undecorated windows, making the transitions from office to stake-out in an abandoned warehouse run smoothly.
As contradictory as it sounds, this is a refreshingly traditional piece of new work. Cops examines masculinity in a classical style and structure that is fitting of the time period the play is set. Minus some in-jokes for the modern day audience, the play feels like it could have been written sixty years ago – for better and for worse. Sometimes it’s like a fine vintage wine, in other places, it’s dusty and antiquated. Authenticity is clearly the driving force, meaning captivating, gripping action is sadly put on the back burner.