The world of You Stupid Darkness is one that feels surreally alien, yet only a few steps away from our own. Armed with gas masks to combat the presumably toxic air outside, the show’s characters trudge, every Tuesday evening, into a dreary, falling-apart office festooned with motivational posters, to take calls from an increasingly depressed, scared, and hopeless populace. ‘Brightline’ promises a listening ear and no judgement, that will be familiar to those who know the Samaritans, but with the added twist of being for those finding themselves ‘stressed and hopeless at the prospect of the world today’.
I initially found myself more intrigued by the world the show was set in than the characters in front of me. I felt a morbid curiosity to open the office door and discover what disaster had brought the world crumbling and rendered every kettle unusable. This was achieved in no small part by sound designer Dominic Kennedy, lighting designer Peter Small, and the overall head of design, Amy Jane Cook, who managed to build a world fascinating in its decay. Flashing lights through the windows could have been bombs, fires, or electrical storms. The constant wail of sirens and hum of planes could have signalled a number of terrifying and now routine disasters, and inside the office, a rotting world was being tenuously held together by aging, upbeat posters, their frayed positivity almost hiding the cracks underneath. The world of the show and the tone it wanted to set was created perfectly by this set, and made it instantly fascinating.
The play itself took a bit longer to enchant me though. The mess of calls and conversation at the beginning divided my attention and annoyed me as I tried to focus on the main action. The one-sided phone conversations were a clever device that later in the play helped me understand these characters, but at the beginning, seemed to create a barrier. After that hiccup though, I was sucked into the vignettes they created with each other. There was a constant push and pull between the characters’ desire to hope for something more, for a future, and the bleak reality that made it terrifying to think more than half an hour into the future. Jenni Maitland, as the put-upon Frances, gave a particularly impressive performance. She convincingly and heartbreakingly brought to life this character valiantly trying to please everyone, while the world around her literally crumbles. The load of emotional labour she was carrying by running a helpline in the apocalypse, while pregnant and while desperately trying to keep the employees, bosses, and her husband happy, was unthinkable but somehow immediately relatable and human thanks to Maitland’s performance.
In You Stupid Darkness, Sam Steiner has created a play that feels prescient about our own world. It taps into the existential dread many of us feel as we read about melting glaciers, never-ending fires and governments filled with politicians who seem more worried about ego and power than about how they can help. Without being preachy or ham-fisted in its message, this is a show that asks if we will succumb to the slowly encroaching dread, or reach out a hand to pull others (if only a little) from the spreading darkness.
Author: Sam Steiner
Directed by: James Grieve
Produced by: Kitty Wordsworth
Booking Link: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/you-stupid-darkness/
Box office: 020 7407 0234
Booking until: 22 February 2020