As the title suggests, the UK premiere of Angela Betzien’s The Dark Room makes for decidedly bleak viewing. Set in a run-down motel near Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, it tells three interconnected stories, which unfold simultaneously on stage but in reality months apart, taking in themes including police brutality and child abuse. Betzien weaves these narrative threads together, as the characters slip in and out of each other’s lives, resulting in an intense 75 minutes that makes you think, keeps you guessing and ultimately leaves you reeling.
First to arrive are youth worker Anni (Katy Brittain) and her latest charge Grace (Annabel Smith), staying for the night while Anni tries to find a new home for the traumatised teenager. Next, we meet policeman Stephen (Tamlyn Henderson) and his pregnant wife Emma (Fiona Skinner), returning from a wedding but in far from high spirits. And last to enter the room is Craig (Alasdair Craig), another police officer, who’s facing up to recent events involving another teenager, Joseph (Paul Adeyefa), and the implications for his life and career.
The Dark Room is not an easy play, either in its subject matter or its format. The script blurs and overlaps scenes, with the actors remaining in the room throughout while other stories are told. Yet each pairing occupies their own separate world, and director Audrey Sheffield skilfully manoeuvres the actors around the space so that each strand of the plot remains distinct and clear. There’s a connection between the three, which is gradually revealed as the play goes on, and places Joseph and Stephen at the centre of the intricate framework. Tamlyn Henderson is excellent as Stephen; he’s clearly a good man who loves his wife and wants to do the right thing, but has found himself trapped in a world where masculinity always wins, at the expense of everyone and everything else.
Ultimately, though, it’s Grace’s story that lingers most in the mind. Annabel Smith is mesmerising as the volatile and vulnerable young girl whose life has been so horrific it’s left her broken and feral. In contrast, Katy Brittain’s Anni exudes the weary patience of an experienced youth worker who’s seen it all before – not just in this case but in an endless line of mistreated and neglected children over the course of ten years. Her lack of surprise in the face of Grace’s outbursts is perhaps the most disconcerting point of all.
After carefully building the suspense little by little, the play’s conclusion comes suddenly in a burst of drama (with lighting designer Will Monks creating some genuinely unnerving effects in the play’s dying moments). Though conclusion is perhaps the wrong word, as we’re left with the depressing sensation that nothing’s really changed; just as they weren’t the first, Grace and Joseph won’t be the last young people to end up in their situation. And though the play’s set in Australia, it issues a universal challenge to society to change the way it treats its most vulnerable members. Certainly not a light evening’s entertainment, but a grimly thought-provoking piece of theatre that deserves to be seen by many.
The Dark Room is at Theatre503 until 2nd December.