Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review: 'Dark Room' at the Etcetera Theatre, 14th August 2017

Dark Room reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

In Jim Mannering's Dark Room, four social misfits get together to discuss their shared passion. They spend their time bickering over the quality of the coffee, chatting about their club subscriptions and swap thoughts on the random stranger they're going to kidnap, torture and brutally murder.

Wait.. what?

This darkly comedic one act play introduces us to characters who're as domestic as they are psychopathic. We begin with 'A' (Roger Parkins), a corpulent Mummy's boy with the unfortunate hobby of exposing himself in parks. An organised, bookish type, he realises that the perfect murder will need accomplices, and forms a partnership with the angry and veiny 'B' (Jim Mannering) and 'C' (Rebecca Finch), who has honed her feminity to razor sharpness. The play opens with the introduction of new member 'D' (Arthur Gall), who is pleased as punch to be selected to join this exclusive club.

The rest of the play follows them as they stalk their target, conduct 'simulations' of his torture and get to know one another. Each of the four is sharply written, with their own foibles, mannerisms and peculiarities that cause low-level frictions within the group. For example, 'A' is fussy and precise, enjoying the power of being the group's leader and maintaining decorum almost as much as the disembowelling. Together they make for a finely balanced ensemble, having enough in common to make it plausible they're together while being so different that humorous situations naturally well up around them.

It's an impressive piece of writing: focused, funny and always moving forward. These qualities are enhanced by four performances that never put a foot wrong. I adored every moment Roger Parkins was on stage - frequently reminding me of a homicidally included Mark from Peep Show. Mannering's 'B' also impresses, forever teetering on the edge of caricature but never quite crossing the line. Finch manages to show some real demented dangerousness going on behind her eyes, flashing them seductively like a snake sneaking up on an unsuspecting mouse. 

Great as all that is, I can offer Dark Room a rare compliment: I was disappointed when it finished. The vast majority of plays I see I generally think could lose 10-15 minutes of waffling or unnecessary subplots and still be great, but this ends at such a high point that I found myself craving more, wanting to see the grisly conclusion to the tale.

I was thinking about this on the way home and realised that there's a neat moral equivalency going on between characters and audience by the play ending this way. They, like us, are hungry for blood n' guts - hungrily anticipating watching someone jerk and gurgle on a meat hook. It both implicates wider appetites for violence and humanises the play's serial killer characters, and makes for a neat writing trick.

As you can probably tell I deeply dug Dark Room. It's nice to see a play that's confident enough to simply tell a well-written story. It's so engaging I think these characters and situation could stand being expanded to a much longer piece.

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