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.


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Review: Hyem (yem, hjem, home) at Theatre 503

A quick examination of the cluttered living room set of Philip Correia’s debut play Hyem (yem, hjem, home) suggests we’re in the domain of a slightly eccentric collector. Family photos are proudly displayed alongside – amongst other assorted oddities – Viking helmets, guns, some ugly animal ornaments and a side table adorned with a gold dildo. Oh and let’s not forget the glass tank, which turns out to contain a six foot python.

In fact, Jasmine Swan’s set is a pretty accurate metaphor for the home of Mick and Sylv. Located on a dodgy estate in Northumberland, the house provides a refuge of sorts for an assortment of local kids, all of whom for whatever reason feel they have nowhere else to go. It’s not hard to see why they keep coming back – at Mick and Sylv’s they can smoke, drink and party as much as they like, and far from trying to keep boys and girls away from each other, romantic liaisons are actively encouraged.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

But though the couple clearly care about their young visitors, there’s something not quite right about the whole setup, and once we learn the neighbours have been talking (not to mention throwing bricks through the window) it becomes more and more difficult to see it all as entirely innocent.

Correia clearly doesn’t believe in making it easy for us, and Jonny Kelly’s production keeps things ambiguous throughout, hinting at just enough of an uncomfortably physical relationship between Mick and newcomer Dummey – a fatherless thirteen-year-old who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mick’s absent son – to fuel our suspicions, but never quite enough to prove anything. Ryan Nolan and Patrick Driver play this relationship perfectly; seen from one perspective it’s heartwarming, from another quite disturbing.

Both also excel individually – as Dummey, Nolan displays all the hilarious awkwardness of any teenage boy just discovering girls for the first time. But there’s also a touching vulnerability to the character; at the end of the day, Dummey just wants someone, anyone, to want him. Driver explodes on to the stage as cheerful Cockney Mick, “the Pied Piper of Fountain Park”, who seems – for better or worse, and despite his clearly genuine love for his wife – to only really come alive when he’s surrounded by young people.

Charlie Hardwick is perfectly cast as Mick’s wife Sylv, her bawdy good humour dissolving over time as she becomes increasingly concerned about her husband’s behaviour. Here too there’s ambiguity, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell if she’s afraid of what people think, or if she has suspicions of her own. Sylv totally steals the show in the closing moments, baring her soul in a powerful rant against those who judge the way she’s chosen to live her life. With similarly strong and complex performances from the other cast members – Sarah Balfour, Aimee Kelly and Joe Blakemore as the lost souls who currently complete Mick and Sylv’s unconventional “family” – the stage is set for 90 minutes of unsettling but compelling domestic drama, which has the potential to develop in all kinds of directions.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

Another great thing about the play – a production from NorthSee Theatre – is its use of language, and specifically the Geordie dialect, which is thick enough to be authentic but not so much that the dialogue becomes difficult to understand for audiences outside the North East.

Hyem is a layered, intriguing play that draws us into the home of its title and invites us to join the party, yet still somehow leaves us feeling slightly out in the cold, wondering what’s really going on inside. Not one for those who like all their loose ends neatly tied up, maybe – but if you’re okay with a bit of ambiguity, this fascinating exploration of what really makes a house a home is definitely worth checking out.


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Review: Boom at Theatre503

What would you do if you knew the world was about to end? Call your loved ones, spend all your money, ditch the diet…? All good answers – unless you’re marine biologist Jules, who has a different approach. He’s predicted the imminent apocalypse by observing the behaviour of his fish, but having failed to convince anyone to take him seriously about the threat, he’s made his own arrangements: luring unsuspecting student Jo to his lab/bunker for what she thinks is a fun night of no strings sex. It’s only when she discovers a drawer full of diapers that it dawns on her Jules’ promise of “intensely significant coupling” might have been more than just good marketing…

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli
Boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is a play of two halves. It begins as an enjoyably off the wall romantic comedy about two people thrown together in the most extreme circumstances. Will Merrick and Nicole Sawyerr are great as the unlikely couple – he’s an earnest nerd who genuinely can’t understand her reluctance to be Eve to his Adam; she’s a wannabe journalist with a sharp tongue, dismayed by her latest disastrous life choice. They’re so terrible together that it actually works… at least to begin with.

Then the world ends, and things take a bizarre and mildly baffling turn with the sudden intervention of Barbara. Up to this point, Barbara’s been sitting in the corner, pulling levers and providing enthusiastic percussive sound effects for what we now learn is a museum exhibit several millennia from today, educating future generations about “the Boom”. Barbara’s not supposed to talk, she informs us, before going on to do exactly that – frequently, and at great length.

It’s here that the play seems to lose its way a bit, as Barbara, played with joyous abandon by Mandi Symonds, goes pretty quickly from amusing and lovable to verbose and more than a little irritating as she constantly interrupts proceedings to talk about her own issues. Some of her monologues are utterly surreal (in particular the bit where – a propos of absolutely nothing – she decides she must tell us how she was conceived; and no, it’s not in the way you might think) and her behaviour increasingly erratic, which is entertaining but gets in the way of the play actually making a point. As a fan of dystopian fiction who’s fascinated by the psychology of survival, I was looking forward to a juicy exploration of Jules and Jo’s evolving relationship, but we spend less and less time with them as Boom slowly but surely becomes Barbara’s story instead. Having enjoyed the randomness because I assumed it would all make sense in the end, I left 90 minutes later with very little idea what I was meant to be taking away other than a feeling of slight bewilderment, and a new respect for fish.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli
All this doesn’t mean the play isn’t funny; it is, and all three members of the cast give great performances. But the humour lies mainly in the awkward relationship between Jules and Jo, and in Barbara’s lively personality, rather than in the end of the world story itself. There are fewer laughs in the second half of the play – partly because, well, the world’s ended and our characters find themselves in dire straits; and partly because by this point things have got so bizarre it’s difficult to know how to respond to anything that happens.

For this reason, it’s difficult to give a conclusive opinion on Boom. It may be that in a few days’ time, something clicks into place and I suddenly get it. Right now, though, I’m still trying to figure out what hit me.


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Review: Homecomings: The Monkey at Theatre503

John Stanley’s gritty debut play The Monkey, one of the winners of Synergy Theatre Project’s national prison scriptwriting competition, is a fast-moving, plain-talking black comedy that somehow manages to be very funny and incredibly grim all at once. Directed by Russell Bolam, it’s an honest portrayal of a world that’s often violent and unforgiving, but drawn with the sympathetic pen of a writer who knows his subject matter well, and tackles head-on the stereotype that says just because people find themselves in a bad situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad people.

The action begins in the stairwell of a run-down block of flats in Bermondsey. This is the home of petty criminals Dal (Daniel Kendrick) and Becks (Danielle Flett), and their nice but dim local drug dealer Thick-Al (George Whitehead). Life’s not exactly easy for the trio, but it’s also fairly uneventful… until Dal’s childhood friend Tel (Morgan Watkins) comes back into town to retrieve ÂŁ500 he lent Thick-Al in an unlikely moment of generosity. Realising he’s been taken for a mug, the unpredictable Tel, who’s never been quite the same since falling on his head during a robbery a few years ago, sets out to take his bloody revenge – and woe betide anyone who gets in his way.

Photo credit: Simon Annand

What’s so appealing about The Monkey is that despite everything that goes on (and between the language and the violence, it does get pretty graphic at times), all the characters – even the psychotic Tel – have redeeming features and are even quite likeable. There’s genuine friendship on display here, for instance, even if it is expressed through liberal use of the c-word, and in many ways the characters’ idiosyncrasies make them easier to get along with: Tel and Thick-Al’s shared love of Jaffa Cakes is oddly endearing, as is Tel’s unexpected obsession with cleanliness.

This flawed humanity is captured in four brilliant performances from the cast. Morgan Watkins is particularly enjoyable as Tel, a ticking time bomb of twitchy, pent-up energy that occasionally explodes in bursts of violent rage towards anyone who happens to be nearby. Impeccably dressed in suit and tie, Tel stands out from the Bermondsey crowd, and his air of superiority shows that he’s well aware of the fact, while his admiration for Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs exposes him as a frustrated gangster wannabe.

Photo credit: Simon Annand

At the opposite end of the scale, George Whitehead’s affable and appropriately named Thick-Al has no such pretensions, and is so laid-back he’s practically horizontal; content to lounge about on the sofa all day, all he cares about is his next fix, and he’s blissfully unaware of the trouble he’s in until it’s too late. Daniel Kendrick and Danielle Flett fall somewhere in between the two as Dal and Becks – while they’re quite content to get on with life in the only way they know, they are at least alert to the danger posed by Tel’s return and its potential ramifications, not just for Al but for themselves as well.

Not for the fainthearted, The Monkey is nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes (and educational: not only did I learn some new rhyming slang, I now know that Tim Roth’s from Dulwich, not Deptford – yes, I did go away and look it up) with larger than life, complex characters who feel like real people, not clichĂ©s. It’s an impressive debut from John Stanley and well worth checking out during its short run at Theatre503.


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Interview: John Stanley, The Monkey

Next month, Battersea’s Theatre503 plays host to Homecomings, a festival of new plays by prisoners and ex-prisoners about getting out and going home. Produced in partnership with the Synergy Theatre Project, the festival runs from 21st February to 18th March and will feature two of the winners of Synergy’s third national prison scriptwriting competition – Glory Whispers by Sonya Hale and The Monkey by John Stanley.

John, a lifelong Londoner, describes The Monkey as “a dark, comic contemporary drama of criminality, addiction and money owed”. The four characters he’s created, he explains, offer “a brief glimpse of the many diverse and varied people I met during my life’s erratic and unusual journey”.

the-monkey-by-jon-stanley

Until he joined the Synergy project, John never imagined a future as a playwright: “The short answer is no, although I’ve always dabbled in poetry. Recently I completed a book about my life, but the truth is that until I completed the Synergy playwriting course I never had an interest in theatre.”

The Synergy Project, founded in 2000, seeks to build a bridge from prison to social reintegration, prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system, and inspire change by capturing the imagination of participants and public. After learning about the project from a friend who worked at the Young Vic, John joined the Synergy playwriting course and went on to write The Monkey. He’s thrilled to have his first ever play selected as a winner, out of a record 134 entries.

“I was over the moon when I found out, truly elated. Synergy has had such an enormously positive impact on my life that it’s impossible to quantify in a few sentences.” His advice to others thinking about getting involved in Synergy is simple: “Don’t hesitate and don’t delay, take the opportunity and go for it immediately.”

John’s now looking forward to seeing his work come to life on stage: “It’s exciting and nerve-wracking to see it come to life. I wrote The Monkey in 2012 and when I finally got to hear it in its entirety at the rehearsed reading recently, it was somewhat unreal but it was really gratifying. I am a touch nervous as to whether people will like it or not, though my feeling is you either do or you don’t and that’s how it is. Some people will find it hilarious and some won’t, but I hope they at least find it funny. If they do that would be wonderful.

“I’m sure I portray a world that most people are unaware of, so I hope they go away educated in some degree to an underbelly that exists in their midst – but most of all I hope they find it funny and have a good laugh.”

Catch The Monkey and Glory Whispers at Theatre503 from 21st February to 18th March.