‘There’s no muzzle like fear’ rue-filled Madeleine MacMahon proudly exclaims as she plays conniving new-girl-at-school Ruth. The vengeful glee and ice-cold conscience with which the words are delivered adequately summarise the victory of retribution and chilling pursuit of student-body popularity presented in The Dark Room.
Set superbly in the intimate New Diorama Theatre, the gripping, Brecht-inspired production was one of constant dualities: the comically able cast were ceaselessly funny as sombre morals were demonstrated and threaded throughout. The audience was required to examine the adolescent characters not as who they were, but who they could potentially become. More pertinently, school popularity and associated politics is allegorically placed beside 21st Century scandal: phone hacking, stock market crashing and pyramid-shaped hierarchies.
The cast of The Dark Room convincingly portrayed adolescents as adults, which is a complex task. Andy McLeod as delinquent Luke was endearingly played in the face of violent outbursts and a certain criminal future. The future-obsessed head boy James, played with incremental anxiety by Ed Cobbold, is as uncanny nostalgic as school Queen Bee Jessica (Hannah Duncan). Leah Milner, as Ethel, was a highly capable actor managing to express facially, physically and using an ululation-pitch of intonation. Student welfare advisor June (Natalie York) provided cringes and humour as the all-too familiar anxiety-ridden teaching assistant. While dealing with the dilemmas of young adults in the playground, the entire cast portrayed the combined immaturity and prodigious nature of youth.
The cast glided across stage on chalkboards, rearranging and swapping chairs as the scene dictated. The masterstroke of the production, a green dot-matrix projection, was both aesthetically pleasing and epitomised the nature of the production. The illuminations on the black backdrop were retro-video game graphics; the ‘Player 2 entering game’, ‘Level 2’ and point scoring cleverly demonstrated that the past will echo into the future, and how easily dispassionate politics – whether human or institutional – transpire.
Writer and Director David Byrne, incidentally also the artistic director of the New Diorama, created a cohesive world of juvenile stakes and innocent beginnings in a terrorising ploy for an endgame of admiration and reputation. The ‘Dark Room’ in question was a thought-provoking concept. The space was the stamping ground for past experiences brought to the fore and slung to the background by lead character Ruth: it’s her memories relayed onto the display allowing her to provide a commentary of the story told throughout the play.
In the face of sombre undertones relating to inaction as the only tactic against oppression, The Dark Room elicited irrepressible laughter and commanded vested interest in the fates of all persons involved. The cast were energetic and enthusiastic amongst an imaginative set design that allowed drama and humour to interplay on whim. David Byrne achieved his aim outlined in his director’s note to create a play with the ability to be geared to the mass market, while maintaining a politically active play with Brechtian effects. The Dark Room was a superb achievement of acting, execution, set design and direction.