The Dark Room
New Diorama Theatre
This extraordinarily lively, hour-long piece, which its writer/director says is "inspired by Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (with shades of American teen classic Mean Girls)", but The Dark Room is set not in Chicago's vegetable market or Munich but a high school.
Its protagonist Ruth proudly presents her own story. "This is the first time," she tells us, "that you are going to hear the real truth," and even whisperingly warns us that it‘s a tale in which it's the bad guy who wins. The telling takes the form of a video game. Points scored, forward arrows, pause symbol, level up as a character succeeds, game over as one fails are all projected on the back walls and the playing given a surreal quality despite the reality of the characters' physical appearance.
It is an imaginative way of looking at events, producing the equivalent of Brecht's distancing effect of which he might well have approved. But does it work in presenting its warning that all it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing?
There is a strong performance from Madeleine MacMahon as power-hungry Ruth who, on arriving as the new girl, sets on an upward climb through cunning, exploitation and blackmail. Leah Milner is grotesquely comic as Ethel the school newspaper editor too easily manipulated, Natalie York plays a mild-mannered, insecure teacher June, Ed Cobbold well-meaning James who's a loser, Andy McLeod Luke, Ruth's yobbo sidekick and Hannah Duncan pretty little Jessica who doesn't know what is happening to her. Some of it is pretty instant acting, there is not much chance to develop a character, but this team makes an excellent ensemble, not least working together on the manipulation of the setting which is a major feature of Byrne's production.
Old style school desks with lids and large blackboards, all mobile on wheels, zip around the stage like shunting trucks in some speeded-up goods yard to match Dominic Brennan and Phil McDonnell's precise sound score and Catherine Webb's lighting precisely cued by operator Phil Hunter, hiding or revealing a new situation. Blackboards swivel round to present a character seen from an overhead perspective as, held like a magnet on a fridge door, they seem to sprawl on the floor reading a newspaper or lie in bed on the phone.
The Dark Room is fast moving and funny and very entertaining but so busy being clever that its serious point becomes lost in the onrushing pace. Although Ruth quite often presses the pause button, it misses out on the opportunity to take a Brechtian stand outside the action and highlight the choices not taken that allow the ruthless and ambitious to succeed. With things so frantic there is no time to properly take things in—if indeed they are there. I'd love to see this opened up more, perhaps with some of those powerful Brechtian songs that sum up a dilemma or pose a question.
At the moment we have a school story that is an analogy for a corporate world that in turn represents a wider political picture but that deeper significance needs strengthening. Things are perhaps too bright to see the shadows in this dark room.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton