Review: The Dark Room at Theatre503

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.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

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.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… ūüėČ

Review: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the Orchard Theatre

If there was ever a movie crying out to be turned into a musical, it’s 1994 Aussie hit, Priscilla. The addition of disco classics to this fabulously flamboyant tale¬†of three friends on a road trip through¬†the desert¬†feels like the most natural thing in the world, and the resulting show is¬†an infectiously joyful cocktail, which is guaranteed to brighten up even the dreariest Monday.

Tick (a.k.a. Mitzi), a disillusioned drag queen, invites his friends Adam¬†(a.k.a. Felicia) and Bernadette (formerly Ralph) to join him in a¬†new act in Alice Springs, but doesn’t tell them he has his own reason for going. So, hopping aboard their very own party bus, Priscilla, the three¬†set off from Sydney on a journey of self-discovery that will bring¬†arguments, revelations and a bucketload of innuendo.

Photo credit: Paul Coltas & Darren Bell
Photo credit: Paul Coltas & Darren Bell

Blue’s Duncan James seems totally at ease with both his male and female personas, not to mention an increasingly outrageous wardrobe, and gives a strong performance as the conflicted Tick. He’s joined by Simon Green, as Bernadette, a sophisticated lady¬†who¬†just happens to have once been a man, and who lives in fear that her best days – and her chances of finding Mr Right¬†– are behind her.¬†Her scathing one-liners¬†are¬†usually directed at Felicia, played by a deliciously camp Adam Bailey. Unlike Tick, he’s¬†completely comfortable with who he is, and demonstrates it by being fabulously over the top, but¬†not always¬†showing the sensitivity to others that he expects for himself.

This show is a lot more just its stars, though, and has three unsung heroes (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the Divas. With the main characters’ act consisting of them lip syncing to pop songs, someone has to provide the soundtrack, and Lisa-Marie Holmes, Laura Mansell and Catherine Mort deliver a sensational¬†performance. (This is all the more impressive considering they’re suspended from the roof by wires for most of the show.) There’s a brilliantly unhinged turn from Julie Yammanee¬†as Cynthia, Philip Childs is a loveable hero as Bob – and the whole cast exude so much energy throughout that it’s impossible to resist the urge to get up and join in¬†for the final medley.

And while we’re talking about unsung heroes, a quick word for the incredible wardrobe department, led by Suzanne Runciman. The outfits¬†are not only visually stunning but also seemingly limitless; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show with so many lightning-fast costume changes, and yet there’s not a wig out of place.

Photo credit: Paul Coltas & Darren Bell
Photo credit: Paul Coltas & Darren Bell

Priscilla is a camp extravaganza – quirky, cheeky and endlessly entertaining, with a fantastic disco soundtrack¬†featuring the likes of I Will Survive, Venus and Hot Stuff. But the show’s not just about glitterballs and glamour; it has a serious point to make too about the importance of both accepting ourselves for who we are, and allowing others to be themselves too.

Bit cheesy? Absolutely. But when you’re having this much fun, who cares…

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 30th April.