The Darkroom

Tue 4th – Sat 15th October 2011

reviews

Kerry Gilbert

at 10:44 on 15th Oct 2011

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There is a small but potent group of playwrights who have recently been coined as ‘a vanishing breed: the fastidious craftsman who knows how to explore ideas while generating suspense’. Steve Lambert, the playwright of ‘The Darkroom’ should certainly be considered part of this elite. I must express my gratitude to Steve for his sustained efforts to infuse suspense into The Darkroom. Keeping me on the edge of my seat was as much an act of humanity as it was a demonstration of artistic ability considering the almost airplane-esque nature of the seating arrangements. A brief warning should be issued to those wishing to frequent the Alma Tavern Theatre: anyone who boasts a leg length longer than 34inches should opt for an aisle seat for comfort purposes. However, despite any misgivings I may have regarding the seating facilities I was completely captivated by the nature of the Alma Tavern Theatre. It is an incredibly intimate venue that exudes a certain touch of austerity, a perfect backdrop for this post-World War Two drama that should consider ‘Make do and mend’ as its tagline.

The play has in a sense already begun when you arrive into the theatre to take your seat as Faye, played by Charlotte Ellis, the female lead (and indeed the only female in the cast) is knitting. As the plot unfolds I was quite stunned by how this simple tableaux is in fact a crucial element from which many social comments are made, and indeed the stemming point for some of the most uncomfortable moments in the play. The traditional ‘grandmother in a rocking chair’ connotations of knitting are abandoned and instead I was struck by the violence, despair and desperation that came to be associated with this activity. Despite her more harrowing scenes Faye also brings a light relief to the production with he her comedic interjections. Charlotte Ellis should be commended for her natural ability to deliver such interpolation to such tremendous effect .

The Darkroom draws to a close as it opened, Faye on her own, knitting. This brings a certain circularity to the play which at once made me feel comfortable in the familiarity and uncomfortable in the sense that despite the revelations throughout the play Faye is no better off at the end than she was in the beginning.

The Darkroom is both immensely watchable and ‘hide behind your hands’ uncomfortable at times. A minimal but authentic set, and a strong cast under the very capable direction of Pameli Bonham ensured that Steve Lambert’s craftsmanship was fully exploited to its most enrapturing effect.

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Oscar Millar

at 11:43 on 15th Oct 2011

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The conception of the ‘Darkroom’ came from a photograph, a postcard specifically. It was a picture of a post-war couple enjoying tea on the lawn - chosen at random but cherished and crafted into something beautiful. This is a play of wonderful symmetry and even this very fact almost parallels the story of so many of those war time romances that came about through chance but matured into relationships which formed the backbone of the 20th century. The irony of the title (play created from a picture-play about creation of pictures), I imagine, was intentional and in keeping with the wit and sharpness that circulated this play from the first moment.

In keeping with traditions set out by Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, the playwright Steve Lambert offers a picture of normality, which slowly unravels like the knitting at which Faye (Charlotte Ellis) continually toils but never finishes. Every assumption that was there to be made about the banality of these people’s lives was encouraged early on with ease. This ease, I believe, came through playing on the misconception (that every generation has) that somehow the younger generation invented scandal; that our parents and grandparents couldn’t be embroiled in sexual or political deceit, that all they lived for was Sunday tea on the green.

For James (Gerard Cook), tea on the green is very clearly not what he is living for: arguably it is one of the multitude of things that he is positively petrified of. The reason for this is not made entirely clear from the outset but Cook is sufficiently haunted for us to know that even teas are laced with menace when you have suffered through war time like he did. Cook does 'broken' very well, but never quite achieves the effortlessness with which Charlotte Ellis does chipper. Genuinely funny from the off, she benefitted from an intimate space as every laugh could infect the whole audience seamlessly. Were she to have simply performed as the play’s comic turn I would admire her, but in one scene Lambert converts his heroine from comedienne to tragedienne, and she flourishes. A theme does emerge at around the halfway point of this hour and a half long show (it is worth noting that the chairs were fairly uncomfortable but no fidgeting was heard, a delight attributable, in many senses, to former schoolteacher and director Pameli Bonham) that all of the three characters are the polar opposite of your first assumption. To tell in what capacity this is the case would be to spoil the fun, but even William (Duncan Bonner), the third and seemingly most two dimensional of the trio, is unreadable. Bonner’s performance as a foreign office Tory is wonderfully sneering, but arguably too unlikeable, considering we are to believe he is/was a love interest of the very shrewd Faye.

The stage set up was appropriately Spartan, and I found it a lovely fact that the audience had to walk across it to get to their seats, unintentional I’m sure, but almost encouraging the audience to step into someone else’s shoes. The lighting also, was a simple affair, the main distinction between the garden and darkroom achieved by a red filter. This is no aside to the technical director because in simplicity they achieved their goal, the image of post-war Britain was not flash (forgive the lighting pun) and it would have been easy to over-glitz the postblitz. In summary, you can see that ‘Theatre West’ have an appropriately professional team.

If I am to criticise, then my main gripe is with the speed of dialogue. Moving at points at break neck speed (which was obviously to some extent intentional, signifying the trio’s discomfort) may work very well in the West Wing but it has always been drilled into me that on the stage, first and foremost, there is no rewind button, so the audience must never be forced to catch up.

There is clearly though, some sort of pause button available to the director Pam and her team, as she found time somehow to cast and produce this whole production in two weeks. She claimed, after the show, that much of it was luck, getting her ideal cast members and finding the perfect little theater for the job. This kind of throwaway line sums up the ‘make do and mend’ mentality of her generation (born around the end of the war) and that of those in the show. This team certainly made do, and there is but a little left to mend.

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