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Friday, December 15, 2017

Review: 'Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody' at the King's Head Theatre, 13th December 2017

Friday, December 15, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

A gender-swapped Beauty and the Beast is such a great idea I'm surprised I haven't seen staged before. Give it a moment's thought and you realise how exciting the implications are: a beautiful Princess Charming dealing with a bestial transformation, the romantic woes of a bookish young man and his having to fend off the advances of an unpleasantly egotistical (and horny) noblewoman. You'd have to try pretty damn hard to screw this up.

So it's with a sigh of relief that Fat Rascal Theatre and Laura Elmes Productions more than do it justice. Essentially reworking the 1992 Disney animated adaptation, the show sees Belle become Beau (Jamie Mawson), an effete Jane Austen obsessed hipster considered an oddball by the town but adored by his lesbian artist mother. His weakness and vulnerability make him the perfect prize for Siobhan, a jodhpur wearing woman-about-town whose krav maga strengthened thighs will crack Beau like a nut.

Before too long Beau is exploring a mysterious castle in search of her missing mother, criticising their tacky Tiffany candelabra and dismissing a carriage clock with a haughty "some people will buy anything". Chintzy interior decor soon proves to be the least of his worries, as he's presently faced with a ravening, furious Beast (Robyn Grant). I'm sure you know the rest of the story.

By the middle of the first number, you can tell this is going to be a pretty damn great night. By the time we're halfway through the first act it's clear that Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody has managed the rare feat of successfully fusing of sincere gender politics and comedy.

It's difficult to understate how interesting and effective (and funny) it is to simply transpose the gender of, for example, Gaston to Siobhan. Watching this egotistical woman strut about refusing to take prisoners and plainly stating her desires is a miniature revelation - the character such a breath of fresh air that you wonder why you don't see people like her on stage or, well, anywhere in fiction for that matter.

Things only become more interesting the more we know about Beast. The show understands and exploits the difference between a man and a woman becoming bestial, taking the time for a couple of great asides about female body positivity (before Beau and Beast head off to shag she nervously mutters "okay, you're a hairy girl, but he knows that..."). Most importantly, every character (particularly Beast) completely makes sense as the opposite gender, to the point where you could imagine this being the original version of the fairytale.

Setting the cool feminism stuff to one side, I can't overstate how goddamn funny this show is. My gold standard of comedy theatre is when the audience is laughing so much that the actors have to wait to ensure their next line is audible - something this show achieves on multiple occasions. Even when they're not bringing the house down, Robyn Grant and Daniel Elliott's book and lyrics provide at least one big laugh every couple of minutes or so, with toe-tapping highlights Have a Brunch and a surreal word salad reworking of Tale as Old as Time.

London theatre is currently adrift in a sea of not very good pantomimes. I say nuts to their tired old gags and teeth-grittingly annoying characters - if you want a genuinely great Christmas night out at the theatre then go see Beauty and the Beast. It's got an amazing cast, catchy tunes, charming set design and intelligence coming out of its furry ears and arse.

Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody is at the King's Head Theatre until 6 January. Tickets here.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review: 'The Female Gaze & Other Stories' at The Cockpit, 12th December 2017

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

2017 saw The Cockpit host The Female Gaze, a series of scratch nights curated by Emily Renée and Annabelle Rich (of Rich Creative) that showcased short works focusing on female experiences. The Sexual Odyssey delivered various perspectives on eroticism and intimacy;  Written on the Body was about the treatment of the female body; and the third, Spellbound, delved into feminine ritual and magic. Now, with 2018 waiting in the wings, we have The Collection, bringing together four tweaked and redeveloped pieces from these shows. 

First up is Sophie Ablett's A-Sexual Being, in which two women, Alia (Catherine Nix-Collins) and Bea (Sophie Ablett) navigate the choppy waters of sexual compatibility. We open with them happily beginning a relationship, though this is quickly thrown into confusion when Alia awkwardly broaches the topic of an open relationship. Bea is, understandably, freaked out.

From here we diagram out their sexualities, helped along by chalk circles on the floor and scrawled labels: 'bisexual', 'hetero-romantic' and 'gray-asexual'. The division between the pair stems from Alia's instinctive embracing of her sexuality, while Bea needs to find her 'category'. I think people are way too quick to find a particular niche for themselves and stick to it. So, I had a huge amount of sympathy with Alia when Bea says she's 'on the spectrum' of asexuality - because what the fuck does that even mean? 

In its focus on labels and identity A-Sexual Being has gotten hold of something both fascinating and unique about modern sex, and while it doesn't quite stick the landing, it at least provides some good brain food.

Next is Annabelle Rich's It, which is kind of like Drop Dead Fred if Rik Mayall were an eating disorder. Rich plays Allie, currently recovering from something unspecified yet serious enough that her friend Alex (Josie Connor) handles her with kid gloves. Similar pressure comes from her boyfriend Tommy (Elliot Janks), who reacts with suspicion when she starts requesting toast without butter.

These are just one of many symptoms of the titular It (Emma-May Uden), a personification of self-loathing that urges Allie to avoid meals, to exercise to exhaustion and to snap defensively at her friends. Easily the best bits of this short are when Allie and It are in open conflict - whether Allie is urging herself through a frantic, punishing workout or trying to work up the courage to eat some toast without puking it all up. 

Uden's smug, apparently all-powerful disorder is a great bit of performance, on the surface cute and pixie-ish but with a palpably evil core. There's some great layering as she begins to talk 'for' Allie, as if she's beginning to over-ride her personality. Sadly the peripheral characters, especially Tommy, are a bit too thinly sketched, but y'know, flies and ointments and all that.

After the interval comes Emily Renée's The Circle, which I simultaneously enjoyed the most and understood the least. After a drug-fuelled nightclub yell-meet-hookup, K (Renée) and L (Ryan Woodcock) end up in bed. Though they clearly have the hots for each other, can their relationship survive a next day comedown? 

The Circle felt spookily relevant to my own relationship experiences; puzzling over whether you love someone and struggling to say the words 'I love you', probing each other's limits through sex and attempting to understand how a person's past influences their present life. What I also had in common with it is that a lot of this stuff completely flies over my head. So, I found myself primarily identifying with Woodcock's 'L' as he figures out K. At times Renée's character seemed to be an unsolvable (and volatile) puzzlebox, and I felt a shiver of recognition when L was reduced to saying "Just tell me what to do!

Though I didn't understand K, Emily Renée's performance was the best thing I saw all night - a cocktail of confidence, vulnerability, sexiness and intelligence that quickly and efficiently sketches out someone who is viscerally 'real' in a way that characters in the other pieces never quite manage. Awesome stuff.

Finally we have Chitta Vritti by Francesca Tennant. After three pieces that are largely serious, this has a refreshingly comedic tinge. Nat (Tracey Lee Sharples) is trying to do some yoga, aiming to clear her head and tone up her body. In her way is a ghoul's gallery of worries - personified by a cruel boss, a waspy mother, bitchy co-workers and so on. Despite her goal of a clear, tranquil mind she's assailed by endless interruptions that drag her down.

I don't particularly have much to say about Chitta Vritti other than that it absolutely achieves what it sets out to do and makes a series of dead-on observations about the pressures of contemporary life. My favourite moment comes when Nat is obsessing about her 'back rolls', feverishly trying to be body positive about herself even as she wallows in self-disgust. It's the cherry on a nicely constructed, complex and visually satisfying pie.

The Female Gaze covers a lot of ground over these four plays and each approaches its chosen subject with intelligence and insight. Despite billing itself as a scratch night, a hell of a lot of prep has obviously gone into each piece and while there may be the odd dramatic anticlimax or stereotyped supporting character, it's obvious why these plays were chosen to show off a year of experimentation.

Roll on The Female Gaze 2018.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: 'Shadows' at Theatro Technis, 6th December 2017

Friday, December 8, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Shadows reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

For large swathes of the population the very idea of prisoner's rights is a joke. As far as they're concerned, once you vanish behind the walls of some brick n' slate Victorian monstrosity you're a non-person, deserving of every injustice, indignity and cruelty you face. It's the kind of thinking that saw former justice secretary Chris Grayling ban prisoners from receiving books and guitars, that led David Cameron to say that the idea of giving prisoners the vote made him "physically sick".

Shadows, a new play by Carguil Lloyd George Webley, follows three inmates incarcerated in the notorious Winson Green Prison aka HMP Birmingham, recently described by its director as "dangerous, dirty and overrun with drugs". Things came to a head a year ago in a 15 hour riot kicked off by prisoners being unable to receive dental treatment.

Winson Green functions as an effective setting for a wide-ranging dissection of race, via three inmates each of whom has a unique perspective on what it means to be black in modern Britain. They are; Edmund (David Monteith), an old lag serving a long sentence who knows the ropes of the institute; Chase (David Ogechukwu Isiguzo), a still optimistic teenager eager to get back to his son and start a business and; Balak (Pharaon El-Nur) a middle class former teacher with a fierce sense of personal justice. On the other side of the bars we have Vince (Troy Richards), their guard.

Over a series of lengthy conversations, we gradually understand the divisions between the men. Despite being born and raised in Birmingham, Edmund feels a profound connection to both his Caribbean and African roots, eager to find the historic and cultural context for his life. Conversely, Balak was born in the US and subsequently adopted by a white British couple - his middle class upbringing leaving him somewhat divorced from what Edmund understands being black in Britain to be. In place of an ancestral connection, he has a political one, his circumstances borne of deep-seated cultural racism rooted in the slave trade. Chase, much younger than the other men, is caught in the middle and the two men essentially battle for his soul and future. 

Shadows is smart as hell - Webley tackles a very big, very complicated issue with wit, pathos and a genuine emotional connection to his characters, who never feel like vehicles for viewpoints.

Sadly, despite the play's many positive aspects, it's let down by a rather lacklustre production. While David Monteith delivers some fantastic moments (my highlight his emotive realisation that the Birmingham of his memory does not match the Birmingham beyond the prison walls), Pharaon El-Nur's delivery is overly declamatory and artificial, he's never particularly convincing and it's difficult to get a handle on who Balak is. 

In addition, the expansive set makes their cell feel bizarrely roomy -  the characters have to walk across the room to talk to one another. Part of the tension of the play is that these characters are trapped in close quarters and the failure of the set to give us any sense of claustrophobia hurts that - not to mention that it singularly fails to capture the reality of the notoriously small cells at Winson Green / HMP Birmingham.

Finally, the finale doesn't really work. Without wanting to spoil anything, the show concludes with an act of violence that's obviously intended to be taken seriously, but instead receives muffled giggles. I can't pin down exactly why that happened, but perhaps the writing ladles on the pathos a little too thickly in the closing scenes.

Shadows is difficult to review. There's so many good ideas and thought packed into the script. Unfortunately this production doesn't quite do justice to them - this show needed more time in the oven.

Shadows was at Theatro Technis 5-7 December.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: 'Sex Workers' Opera' at Ovalhouse, 23 November 2017

Friday, November 24, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Sex Workers' Opera reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

A whore must always be a whore,” said Giuseppe Verdi about Violetta, the sex worker heroine of his opera, La traviata. Since then opera (and, to be honest, pretty much all of performing arts) hasn't been particularly kind to sex workers. The best case scenario is that they get whisked away from a 'life of sin' by a knight in shining armour, but in the vast majority of cases they meet a depressing end via disease, drug addiction or under the knives of male serial killers.

This all contributes to the intense stigma against sex work, which despite being the "world's oldest profession" is widely considered a demeaning and disgusting way to make money. Trying to understand the facts of the situation involves squinting through a cloud of moralistic judgment, negative stereotypes and buttoned up prudery. Fortunately, Experimental Experience's Sex Workers' Opera is here to clear the air and educate us on the practicalities, pitfalls and joys of sex work.

The show consists of a series of musical sketches performed by the cast, composed partly of performers and partly of sex workers (we are never told who's who). These sketches are formed from countless true accounts of what this job is like, with contributions from 50 individuals over 17 countries. 

We progress from a lighthearted story of an Argentinian streetwalker giving her client marital advice, an amusing song about the draconian bans on what you can depict in porn, right through to a harrowing depiction of being arrested and brutalised by the police. Running through all this is a narrative throughline of sisters divided by one's choice to engage in sex work, a narrative that provides a mouthpiece for the anti-sex work arguments about safety, coercion and criminality.

The sceptical sister's position is less malicious and more sympathetically ignorant, giving the characters an excuse to defend themselves and explain what sex work entails. Naturally, the show is largely very positive about sex work: each participant explaining that they have made a reasoned choice to do this for a living, that it suits their personality and lifestyle, that they are smart enough to keep themselves safe and, most simply, that they enjoy it. 

The core of the show is the mantra "listen to us". Much is made of the law around sex work: with the show taking a particularly strong stance against the UK adopting the 'Nordic model', in which the clients rather than the sex workers are criminalised. Their arguments against it are so convincing that you can't work out why it's being considered at all - but then you start to wonder exactly how much consultation the government does with sex workers when formulating new laws around the profession (I'm guessing not much). So, "listen to us" works as a minimalist and powerful argument for taking into account those with boots on the ground.

But while Sex Workers' Opera successfully tackles some of the stigma and misconceptions about sex work, it shies away from responding to legitimate criticism. The sceptical sister character is a bit of a strawman and her objections are summarised as boring and repetitive. To be fair they mostly are: the cast easily dismissing stereotypes that most sex workers are forced to do this, that they're addicted to drugs, that they're petty thieves and that they'll be somehow tainted by an invisible stain for the rest of their lives. But it's disheartening that the argument that sex work promotes the objectification of women is also tossed in the pile of things not worth debating.

Surely there's room for a legitimate debate over whether literally commodifying women's bodies contributes to societal misogyny? I'm not coming down on one side of the debate or the other (after all, there's decades of feminist argument on the issue that I haven't read), but it feels like the show dodges a pretty important question. It's not as if there isn't time to spare: while the majority of sketches and songs are great there are a couple of duds (primarily the prerecorded video shorts) that could be trimmed in favour of putting a bit more philosophical meat on the show's bones.

I don't want to sound too down on the show: Sex Workers' Opera is an imaginative, well conceived, well performed (Emy Fem in particular has a magnetic stage presence) and it's downright interesting piece of theatre.  It will continue to have a positive impact on the world as long as it's staged: these are stories that need to be told and points of view that need to be communicated. If you're a legislator then buy a ticket and listen to this show. 

Sex Workers' Opera is at Ovalhouse until 2nd December. Tickets here.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: 'Inside Pussy Riot' at the Saatchi Gallery, 16th November 2017

Friday, November 17, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Inside Pussy Riot reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

Back in 2012 I protested and fundraised for Pussy Riot during their 2012 trial, at the conclusion of which they were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred". I attended meetings at the Royal Court Theatre in which people who'd attended the trial reported their experiences in court and heard the closing statements of the three defendants (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Ekaterina Samoutsevitch (aka Nadya, Masha and Katya)) performed by actors. Following Nadya and Masha's conviction, I followed the communications from the 'Corrective Labour Camp' and was relieved when they were released early

All this made it extremely surreal to be sat alongside Nadya Tolokonnikova as we processed through a heightened reenactment of her punk prayer protest and subsequent trial and incarceration. This is Inside Pussy Riot, an immersive theatrical experience that tries to educate the audience about what Nadya, Masha and Katya went through and provide a framework on which we can construct our own rebellions.

What the show precisely consists of should remain a mystery. The line between performer and audience is frequently blurred, there's a constant tension on what the show expects from you and nobody knows what is going to be through the next set of doors. It'd spoil the show to explain what's in store, so I'm not going to go into specifics.

What I can say is that there's an uncomfortable tonal friction between the show's DIY punk ideals and its establishment surroundings. The show wears a cloak of feminism, its opening room a perverse mini-cathedral studded with icons of Trump, Farage, Putin and Harvey Weinstein. The show repeatedly makes a point about the importance of free speech and specifically giving women a voice. But I couldn't help but think of that picture of gallery founder Charles Saatchi squeezing Nigella Lawson's throat closed to shut her up. This discontinuity between message and place became an itch I just couldn't scratch. 

Worse, Inside Pussy Riot styles itself as political, but communicates only the vaguest political sentiments. You're handed placards with generic 'protest' slogans like "Save the Planet", "Nobody Rules Me but Me" or "Share the World's Wealth" and later encouraged to yell them out loud (this is insanely awkward). It falls flat - but how could it not when there's zero engagement with the ideology that underpins the slogans? The show often feels like the political equivalent of a teenager buying an AC/DC t-shirt from Primark purely because the logo looks kinda cool.

On top of that, playacting the role of a Russian prisoner made me insanely uncomfortable (especially as I was literally sat alongside Nadya, who had experienced this first hand). Maybe that uncomfortableness was the point, but pretending to be a tortured prisoner in a flashy London gallery in one of the richest neighbourhoods in one of the richest cities in the world felt like straight-up misery tourism. This was only compounded in the launch's afterparty, where the shiny happy people of West London's art set quaffed free shots of vodka alongside trays of simulated labour camp food.

Knowing that Nadya Tolokonnikova co-wrote this makes me feel a little better - there is a validity in taking the nightmare inflicted upon you by a repressive state and reforging it into a weapon to retaliate with - but all too often the show strays into plain old camp. For example, you do not particularly feel like you are gaining a real understanding of the horrors of incarceration when a sexy dominatrix prison guard is strutting around calling you "Princess".

Beyond all that, there's a frustrating regimentation to the show. Immersive theatre at its best gives the illusion of barely coordinated chaos. In the best immersive shows I've seen the audience is at least under the impression they're in control and forging their own stories. Here you dutifully troop from room to room, with an actor at one point breaking character and explaining that the show doesn't really work if you disobey the orders. On paper, the show is about going your own way and kicking back against societal norms. In practice Inside Pussy Riot is about doing what you're told, which extends even to the final moments where you're commanded to step forward and perform protest like a dog begging for a treat.

Inside Pussy Riot looks, sounds and acts the part, but peel away the surface and it's entirely hollow. Political theatre really must do better than simply telling us to "stand up for what you believe in".

Inside Pussy Riot is at the Saatchi Gallery until 24 December. Tickets here.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: 'Phoenix Rising' below Smithfields Meat Market, 15th November 2017

Thursday, November 16, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Phoenix Rising reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Put yourself in the shoes of a teenager who's finally escaped the home of their abusive parents. A childhood of emotional and physical neglect has left you at odds with the world: you have no money; you're unemployable; you're nursing several undiagnosed mental health problems; your council-provided flat is surrounded by drug addicts and alcoholics; and you might have you've got a string of convictions for petty theft breathing down your neck. Everything is terrible and you can't see a way out. Who's going to help you?

GPs have a name for what's wrong with patients who come to them with complaints like these: "shit life syndrome". This sounds flippant but isn't meant to be. Doctors explain that people with shit life syndrome genuinely suffer from physical and mental health problems, but the causes are a knot of economic, social, medical and emotional problems that can't be loosened by a magic pill.

Callum (Aston McAuley), the protagonist of The Big House's Phoenix Rising suffers from a classic case of shit life syndrome. He's your classic angry young man who lashes out because "at least he knows one person is fighting for him". We find him living in an extremely grotty flat, his life punctuated by visits from nosy social workers who seem to just want him to say something upbeat so they can say he's making progress on a form. The one positive thing in his life is that he's a promising sprinter, enough for coach Josiah (Charmel Koloko) to take an interest in him and try to forge him into a champion. 

Phoenix Rising is not a very upbeat kind of play and Callum's tale is not a happy one. It's studded with betrayal, nihilism and abject misery - if you're hoping for an uplifting tale of someone beating the odds, go and see something on Shaftesbury Avenue. But if you're up for something a with a palpable sense of reality to it, this provides.

Part of this results from production company The Big House, which works with young people who have been in care (I previously loved their Knife Edge last year). The company was set up by Maggie Norris in 2013 after she learned that almost half of all prisoners under the age of 21 were previously in the care system. This has resulted in a company whose mission statement is to "break this cycle and many others that care leavers find themselves trapped in". Alongside dramatic training, they provide counselling and long-term support to enable marginalised young people to live independently.  Phoenix Rising is the finale of one of their projects: developed and performed by the participants alongside a professional writer (in this case Andrew Day).

I'm always a little nervous about seeing plays built on such noble foundations. What if it's rubbish? Critically demolishing a charity production just isn't a good look. But if it was terrible that's precisely what I'd have to do.

Fortunately, Phoenix Rising is great. While the overall story is pretty miserable, the piece is studded with funny moments and charismatic performances. Every actor gets a moment to shine, with particular kudos going to Jordan Bangura, Perrina Allen, Daniel Akilimali and Rebecca Oldfield. Excellent though they are, it's Aston McAuley that really grabs the eye: simultaneously relatable and intimidating,  and pitiable and proud.

Callum's story is knitted together from a multitude of observations about life in care, ranging from the cold-blooded trauma of having your children removed from you by court order, to the over-prescription of anti-depressants ("I don't want to look at shit and think it's chocolate ice cream!"), to the alienation of mental health patients, to the indignity of having your entire life bundled into a manila folder for any yahoo at the council to leaf through. Taken as a whole, it feels real, something only bolstered by the sincere and committed performers.

Also shouldering some of this is Maggie Norris' direction and choice of location. The car park underneath Smithfields Meat Market is all stained concrete and crumbling Victorian brickwork, with the dramatic lighting heightening the feeling that these events take place below society's notice. The slight tang of stale piss in some corners of the place contributes to this - it's a rare show that's improved by smelling a bit pissy.

Phoenix Rising comes at an entirely appropriate time. Many of the problems these characters face are directly rooted in the austerity economics of the current Conservative government. Today saw the release of a landmark study in the British Medical Journal that concluded that their cuts to health and social care resulted in 45,000 more deaths between 2010 and 2014 than would have been expected if funding had stayed at pre-2010 levels. Based on these figures, the authors predict that 2015 to 2020 will see approximately 150,000 avoidable deaths due to these cuts. This is plainly described as "economic murder".

Without being preachy, Phoenix Rising shows us precisely what a rubber stamp in a wood-panelled Westminster office does to people's lives. With consequences like these, no wonder so many are suffer from chronic cases of shit life syndrome. Something needs to change. And fast.

Phoenix Rising runs until 2nd December. Tickets here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: 'The Dark Room' at Theatre503, 13th November 2017

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Dark Room reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

The Northern Territory of Australia doesn't look very pleasant at all. Angela Betzien's The Dark Room, first staged in Sydney in 2011, shows us a society suspended in a piss-yellow soup of toxic masculinity, that produces hardened fuckups so damaged there might be no way back for them.

The play takes place inside a single motel room, telling interlinked stories that take place in the same space at different times. First up are Grace (Annabel Smith) and Anni (Katy Brittain), a traumatised 'feral child' and a social worker caring for her overnight. Next are Stephen (Tamlyn Henderson) and Emma (Fiona Skinner), a cop and his pregnant wife returning from a wedding. Finally, we get Craig (Alasdair Craig) and Joseph (Paul Adeyefa), a guilt-ridden cop and a vulnerable young boy. 

None of these stories is particularly cheery (though there fleeting moments of humour). Taken in totality we get an idea of a snowballing cycle of abuse and misery, fuelled by cheap beer and nihilism. Parents, bitter at their ruined lives, take it out on the children, who will do the same to the next generation and so on. 

This inescapable decay is felt keenly by Stephen and Emma, who have recently arrived from Sydney and found their worst nightmares about the region realised. You can't help but feel their paranoia about what a child raised here might become. It manifests itself in the dead-eyed brutality of Craig, a cop with little else to cling to but hackneyed notions of manhood. But it finds its full embodiment in the shattered and vicious Grace, an abused teenage girl perhaps lost forever in a maze of trauma and self-destruction. 

There are glimmers of compassion in the darkness, but the infinite patience and empathy of social worker Anni and the palpable (yet wavering) conscience of Stephen seem as fragile as a butterfly facing down a hurricane. Betzien offers no easy solutions to these problems, because there aren't any. But we can unflinchingly examine situations like these and try to understand why they happen, and, if we can't solve them, we can at least try to ameliorate them.

The Dark Room is a fine bit of writing, crammed full of nuance and atmosphere. It reminded me a little of Ted Kotchoff's 1971 classic Wake In Fright, which similarly delves deep into the forgotten parts of Australia and exposes the beery, sun-blasted viciousness that permeates them. Grace, in particular, is written with a care clearly borne of intense research into the behaviour of abused, angry teenagers. She's an incredibly psychologically complex character and it's a testament to the writing that we understand her through observing her behaviour rather than exposition. 

This production also boasts intricate direction by Audrey Sheffield. Blocking out scenes involving five or six characters, all occupying the same physical space but temporally removed from one another is no mean feat, and it's a credit to her that everything moves so fluidly and naturally. Stage design also lives up the typically high standards of Theatre503, a basically naturalistic motel room with chipboard walls and floor, this effect heightens both the cheapness and temporary nature of the place. 

Performances are similarly great. I particularly enjoyed Tamlyn Henderson's Stephen, who is teetering on a moral tightrope, threatening to become just another Northern Territory bozo cop. But the obvious stand-out is Annabel Smith's Grace, who commits to the role to a frankly scary degree. We repeatedly see flashes of pain and madness in her eyes and through them understand all too well why she wants to hold the world at knifepoint.

It's a great play and a great production, squeezing a hell of a lot into 75 minutes. The Dark Room is by no means an easy watch, but it is a deeply satisfying one.

The Dark Room is at Theatre503 until 2 December. Tickets here.

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