Friday, 17 November 2017

Art of darkness… The Dark Room, Theatre 503, The Latchmere, Battersea

The last time I was at the Latchmere was to see a one man show of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, switch forward a few decades and I have just seen something altogether more shaded.

Angela Betzien’s play is Australian Gothic, six characters, three separate stories all intertwining like vines choking a colonial mansion house. We’re out in the Northern Territories, there’s no civilisation for days and we’re jammed into a motel with ghosts, hysteria, drunken discord and the still beating bloodied heart of  a secret that will change these sad, desperate people for ever.

It’s cleverly staged by director Audrey Sheffield, with all six players being in the same space at varying points and, occasionally, saying the same lines in over-lapping sections of dialogue. It’s no wonder Betzien won Best New Australian Work at the Sydney Theatre Awards, her writing is so emphatically on point with a jaw-dropping narrative discipline that leaves you surprised when all the strands are finally tied together… even then she has a couple of body blows to deliver. You think you’re second-guessing the storyline but it’s too well wilfully elusive for that.

There’s also something of the style of Betzien’s fierce compatriot Nick Cave in a tale dealing in so much horror and that obstinately refuses to compromise. This is about an abuse so ordinary it simply does not deserve to be sugared.

Katy Brittain
In the close confines of the Latchmere, up those stairs that make you feel locked off from the reality of Batersea outside, this is a potent mix indeed.

The first couple arrive in the Motel. A youth worker, Anni (Katy Brittain) who brings with her a dirt-encrusted teen Grace (Annabel Smith) who is wearing a sack over her head and is clearly disturbed. It’s an unsettling start and clearly there’s not only any way that Grace will calm down… she is very intelligent but cannot rationalise her way out of her suffering. Anni is experienced but she struggles to keep pace with her charge’s speed of thought as her mind slithers around the burning scar of her brutalised experience. She has ADHD, PTSD, ODD and “oppositional defiance disorder…” she’s heard all the attempts to box her neuroses.

As Anni and Grace dance or rather box their way around each other another couple enter who are also at odds… a local policeman, Stephen (Tamlyn Henderson) and his pregnant wife Emma (Fiona Skinner) a teacher. They are staying in the motel rather than drive all the way home after a wedding in which Stephen was best man and, having been drinking all day, he’s not exactly picking up on the subtler tones of his wife’s conversation.

Fiona Skinner and Tamlyn Henderson
Stephen’s colleague, Craig was the man getting married and Emma resents the way he fawns over his boss… the alpha male in this law enforcement backwater. Emma has not enjoyed herself and views the nuptuals more like a rally than a wedding. Something has happened, the police are closing ranks and Craig is at the heart of it. Emma and Stephen left Sydney after he turned whistle-blower and now his bravery has deserted him. Staggeringly drunk he only wants to catch the bus to re-join Craig and the boys for more drinking…

Enter Craig (Alasdair Craig) – same space, different time and room – who is pensive and nursing a full tumbler of brown gin… he’s got thinks on his mind… It’s only when he and Stephen interact – these cross-character moments are so well worked – that we understand that a boy died in custardy and that Stephen is expected to cover-up by omitting certain facts and over-emphasising others. It’s the old code and yet having broken it once at some cost, it is sad to see him out of options and his integrity under threat.

There are stories, first from Grace then from Emma about a young aboriginal boy who was disturbed and also sexually confused. He was often seen wearing a dress and otherwise confusing the locals but Grace knew him and Emma believed she could help him. At one point, Grace pulls a lamp out of the wall and in the flash of darkness we glimpse a young black man in a dress… Is he real or haunting the young woman.

Alasdair Craig
The mystery deepens and Joseph (Paul Adeyefa) will eventually make an appearance in revelatory flashback. Everyone is connected and everything is caused by abuse and neglect with people denying their own instincts in an attempt to maintain what passes for normality in this far away place.

This is the kind of play that will linger in your mind for days. The cast all give incredibly committed performances and there must be a fight for the throat sweets after every show, especially from Annabel Smith: Grace is so far fallen… she roars in anger and fear. Her character is terrified and, gradually every one else joins her.

The play was produced by Paperbark Theatre and sponsored by the NSPCC in recognition of its message about the enduring hell of abuse.

The Dark Room runs until Saturday 2nd December 2017… it’s visceral, unflinching, and brutally soulful … please don’t miss it! Tickets available from the Theatre 503 website.

IThankYou Theatre Rating: ****

All photographs courtesy of Alex Brenner. 

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