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Charlie's Dark Angel

James Christopher
The Company of Strangers
Drayton Arms Theatre

Kieran Gough as Eric, Phoebe Price as Ella and Joannah Tincey as Susan Credit: Aimée Watts and CTGF
Joannah Tincey as Susan, Phoebe Price as Ella, Ben Porter as Charlie and Kieran Gough as Eric Credit: Aimée Watts and CTGF
Ben Porter as Charlie and Joannah Tincey as Susan Credit: Aimée Watts and CTGF
Phoebe Price as Ella,Joannah Tincey as Susan, Ben Porter as Charlie and Kieran Gough as Eric Credit: Aimée Watts and CTGF

A new play from a new playwright: theatre and film critic turned director James Christopher has now penned his first play.

It presents a reunion between two men who had been contemporaries at St Bede's, a Roman Catholic boarding school, who accidentally meet again (or is it accidental?) when one rents a country cottage owned by the other.

As you might guess, there is a back-story—you might even guess its nature (rule out fagging and bullying), but its details are far from predictable.

The cottage belongs to Charlie who grew up there but now lives over the picture framing shop he runs in a local village. Ben Porter makes him pleasant and ordinary: loyal and dutiful husband to a high-flying wife who works in finance in the City; a man who takes pride in his craft and finds satisfaction in well burnished gilding and who’d like a child.

At first he doesn’t really remember Eric, who rapidly recognizes him and has a head full of memories of their schooldays in 1991 when Charlie wrote poetry for the school magazine that Eric remembers in great chunks. What Charlie does remember is a night when he had one of the panic attacks which have plagued him ever since. When doing revision he found himself writing an unknown name into his notebook and took off into a strange experience that felt like demonic possession.

Eric is obviously wealthy, a globe-trotting playboy who has never put down roots. In Odessa he has picked up an attractive Ukrainian girl in a sleazy nightspot. She, now travelling with him as his lover, is a talented artist who wants to study at the Slade.

There is something about this relaxed and easy-going rich boy that doesn’t quite ring true but the charm and good looks that Kieran Gough gives him outweigh such thoughts (which the dramatist may be intentionally prompting). Eric says he wants to reawaken Charlie’s creative juices: to get him writing again and to revisit that trauma from their adolescence when he felt possessed by his Dark Angel. But what is Eric really after?

Like the tunnels that Charlie in childhood imagined ran from the depths of the well in the family cottage, out into the underworld or Eric describes beneath Odessa, this play reaches back into the past. Does conventional conformity kill early talent or do people dangerously overestimate juvenile abilities? What is the truth about monk-inspired ideas of out of body experience, what are the effects of aversion therapies? Is Charlie in denial or Eric obsessed?

Phoebe Pryce, making her stage debut as Ukrainian Ella, suggests a mixture of opportunism and genuine attraction that pairs her with Eric and the insecurity about in contrast to her confidence as an artist.

Joannah Tincey plays wife Susan, who has put career before children and is now feeling physically frustrated. This seems like a woman who is beginning to question her choices. But the women are really just an adjunct to this story.

“Use the pain to tame the beast,” Charlie’s doctor father told young Eric. Were medical attitudes and practice really still so homophobic (or even legal) as recently as 1991?

Although setting the action today fixes a date for the back-story, which may be questionable, that doesn’t alter the fact that such things happened and James Christopher adds an extra twist to a partly predictable plot that makes it suddenly darker, creating other secrets to haunt Charlie far into the future.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton