They anonymously crash through the door in gas masks, water snaking down their coats as they shut out the crumbling outside world. Sitting down at weathered phone stations, Jon, Joey, Frances, and Angie are all smiles as they man the lines of Brightline.
When you go to watch a piece of theatre, I like to think of there being two invisible layers separating you from the production. The first layer falls just in front of the stage, dividing the room between actor and patron. The second layer wraps around your body, malleable to the emotion and comedy produced by any said performance. Sam Steiner’s ‘You Stupid Darkness!’ at Theatre Royal Plymouth eased away the stage veil and ran its fingers against my exposed nerves. I spent the evening laughing, and left the theatre crying.
Director James Grieve had his own praises to sing for Steiner. “At an epochal moment when our world feels so unsettled, confusing, oppositional and angry, Sam has written a beautiful, funny, humane play that celebrates kindness, compassion and the indomitable human spirit in the face of uncertainty and fear. It is wonderfully witty, wise, joyful and deeply moving writing that adds up to an unerringly prescient, utterly compelling, vitally important new play about staring at a world we no longer recognise, and which sometimes scares us half to death.”
First on the stage comes Frances (Becci Gemmell). A heavily pregnant and endearingly positive character, her motivating energy is the magnet pulling the four characters together. Although the three other characters are, at least initially, poor at their voluntary jobs, she reinforces them with positivity and keeps team morale high with a stream of smiles, doughnuts, and constructive criticism. Honestly, she could be everyone’s dream manager – unless you really needed people to improve, and quickly.
Jon (David Carlyle) is Frances’ foil – a potty-mouth realist, he’s gobby and hilarious. Straight to the point with everything he says, Jon cracks dry jokes and cutting remarks in an office that is otherwise a little ‘doolally’. His on-stage friendship with Joey (Andrew Finnigan), a 17-year old comic illustrator, is charming to say the least. He acts as an unofficial older brother to the youngster, poking fun at his school and asking him about his hopes for the future.
Joey is much like the audience – a newcomer navigating the Brightline office. Timid, nervous, and a bit confused about what direction he wants to take in life, he’s an innocent and youthful presence. He doesn’t like to make a fuss – so much so that he allows Frances to believe his name is actually Joseph.
Angie (Lydia Larson), a highly imaginative and slightly socially challenged woman in her twenties, is a splash of absurdity the audience drinks up. She gets too personal on the phones, freaks Joey out by illuminating the sexual harassment faced by call-handling volunteers, and becomes very easily consumed by everything around her. She is incredibly sweet and instantly loveable.
I am particularly keen on the collaboration between Steiner’s writing and the actors’ skill. It’s easy in theatre to dramatise characters to the point where they are no longer relatable – everything becomes predictable and hyperbolic. In this play, everything feels real, and that is to be respected.
Gemmell, Larson, Carlyle, and Finnigan all jump into their characters with ease; the dynamic between them quickly fosters a natural authenticity on stage. Steiner’s writing, paired with the skills of these hand-picked actors, makes it difficult to conceive that actually, these characters aren’t real people.
The retro set is a dilapidated room, with mould crawling up the wall while faux-motivational posters cover up the holes and cracks. A steady thrum of interaction narrates the production, while flashing strobe lights and a retro digital clock splices acts into scenes. As the performance unravels, we see callers ring in, relationships build, and the outside world grow more precarious.
Most importantly, we hear and feel the hearts of these characters get louder and larger.
Frances, a constant light despite familial pressures and depleting charity sponsors, tries to keep everything at the office together. Sarcastic, trombone-playing Jon is all quips and cuts until his relationship begins to break down exponentially. School boy Joey struggles to find a route in life. Angie faces a call which rips through her joyful personality traits and pushes her away from the office. We see the lights short circuit, the building flood, Frances break down, and Jon erupt in anger. Angie flees and Joey spectates it all.
But that’s not the end. They push on.
They talk to each other, they find solace, and they keep going. They wade through the flooded office, they light candles, and they each pick up the phone regardless of everything literally falling to pieces around them. They remind the audience that people like this exist – people like this pick up the phones every day and try to guide people through their problems, with no incentive other than to try and make the world a better place. I left this performance feeling incredibly raw, and I challenge you not to be emotional after watching this quintessential production.
“I have heard that it is always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Production Images: Matt Austin.