Tuesday, November 14, 2017

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

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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