First things first. Marina Sirtis (of Star Trek TNG) is a hoot as Marianne, Dark Sublime’s rough-diamond protagonist. She skilfully delivers all the zinging one-liners and withering looks required in a warm and winning central performance. The genuinely laugh-out-loud gags, often about the vagaries of the acting profession and framed around TV nostalgia, are by far the strongest aspect of the production.
Otherwise I fear Dark Sublime never really quite finds its feet. Jokes aside, Michael Dennis’s writing is just too cumbersome and the pace too slow for us to really get behind. Every scene seems a couple of pages too long, arguments are overstated and characterisations are writ too large. Does twenty-one year old super fan Oli (an impressively high-energy Kwaku Mills) really need eczema to signpost his geekiness, for example? It only seems to be mentioned once, so the answer is undoubtedly no. Poor Ms Sirtis spends a lot of time getting people drinks. At times, it seems every other line is about wine, prosecco or gin and tonic. It’s awkward small talk that tells us absolutely nothing useful. This is a shame as there is real Science Fiction to be getting on with elsewhere – in a parallel timeline, no less.
Dark Sublime, the TV show Marianne starred in 35 years previously, crashes in to the domestic action. The show-within-the show is wonderfully realised by clever set and costume choices (Tim McQuillen-Wright), superb lighting design (Neill Brinkworth), the computer voice of Mark Gatiss and a pin-sharp performance by Simon Thorp. He plays fugitive spaceman ‘Vykar’ with a committed and earnest reverence for the material. He deserves the good-will and laughter he receives for, ironically, playing it so straight.
Back in the real world, Marianne reacts badly when best friend Kate (Jacqueline King), with whom she has history, announces a new younger lover, Suzanne (Sophie Ward). It is to the production’s credit there’s no hint of agit-prop about the LGBT story here. It feels a universal tale and is perhaps more about aging than sexuality in any case. Thanks to the cast, the three-way love triangle crackles along well enough initially. When it comes, however, the slide into drunken ranting, shouting and slamming doors feels unnecessarily over-wrought.
Act Two is a bit of a mish-mash that meanders when it should be driving us to a conclusion. We initially get some audience participation as Oli, bending the fourth wall if not breaking it entirely, welcomes us to, you guessed it, a Sci-Fi convention. The most successful scene is backstage later that evening. Oli and Marianne have a heart to heart over brandy when hiding from the fans. This makes it clear that despite the thirty years between them, they’re both experiencing coming of age stories. There are also more jokes and a delightful blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit of slap-stick. It is a welcome reminder of Michael Dennis’s audience pleasing gag-smithing strengths. There is a particular well-received in-joke about avoiding actors’ parties in a scene between Kate and Suzanne too. Suzanne, however, in a move that feels dramatically flat, turns out to be incredibly reasonable and understanding. The problem is, of course, saints are generally terrible bores and, again, things drag. We also return to the Dark Sublime TV show in what feels like a full thirty-minute episode. There is a twist this time although it is so on-the-nose it hardly counts as a twist. The TV script provides a commentary on Marianne’s situation. She, apparently, needs to move on. Who knew? This is an overly long hammer-blow when, perhaps, all that particular nut needs to crack is a quick knowing wink and a smile.
Michael Dennis and director Andrew Keates appear to think leaving us to ponder anything in the bar afterwards is failure. This makes for a slightly nervous feel to the last fifteen minutes as seemingly natural end points are sailed past with yet more stuff we apparently need to know. When will it all stop? When do we get to applaud? Some of us have taxis booked. In the clearest example, Kwaku Mills wanders on, seemingly out of character, at the last to recite W.H Auden’s The More Loving One. This is, I’m guessing, simply to explain where Dennis lifted his title from. It’s a choice that backfires. Auden’s poetry is noted for its clarity of thought and brevity in execution. For all its fun, laughter and strong performances, the overlong and overburdened Dark Sublime can only struggle in comparison.
Directed by: Andrew Keates
Written by: Michael Dennis
Produced by: Jamie Chapman Dixon and Piers Cottee-Jones for Rigmarole Productions in association with Arion Productions, M.Green Productions and J.W. Carter Productions.
Box Office: 0844 871 7632
Booking Link: https://trafalgarentertainment.com/shows/dark-sublime/
Booking until: 3 August 2019