Even when the world is falling apart, we all need to believe in the power of connecting with other people. This is the theme running through Sam Steiner’s latest play for Paines Plough You Stupid Darkness!, receiving its London premiere after a trial run at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth in 2019. You Stupid Darkness! is based around a group of people volunteering once a week at a Samaritans-esque phone in, whilst the world around them crumbles.
The staging along with Amy Jane Cook’s set instantly sets the tone, whilst making viewing as accessible as possible. The audience is set up in a V shape around a disintegrating office, with posters covering holes in the wall and red tape stopping you from falling through a hole in a barrier. The blackouts between scenes cleverly hinting at what is happening in the outside world through clever lighting and sound design.
Only four actors are present during this naturalistic production, and luckily all of them gel together for a collective ensemble performance. Frances, played by Emilia actress Jenni Maitland, leads the three other misfits through their counselling training and assignments, and plays the mother figure with a gentleness. Maitland hits the ‘awkward mum’ moments at just the right pitch, complimenting work experience kid Joey on his ‘cool trainers’, that he’s been wearing the entire time. Lydia Larson as Angie is the true standout for the comedic elements, with her initial gawky innocence making the clash with the hard hitting reality she faces at the end of Act I even more juxtaposing. Larson smoothly moving between the light and shade of her character, with her rhythm and timing eloquently hitting the mark. Andy Rush plays his character Jon’s character development arc with precision, and Andrew Finnigan beautifully plays the different aspects of the struggles of teenage life.
The first half is significantly less refined and the second. The end of Act I leaves you feeling unsure of the point that Steiner is trying to make, which is frustrating, as certain scenes feel like they are there purely there to flesh this production out from a one act play to full production. With Act I having a run time of 90 minutes, some of the more pointless earlier scenes could be easily be cut, in turn helping to augment the brilliance of Act II. It’s here where Steiner’s writing comes into its own, (and increased the play’s initial star rating). Act II allows for every actor to shine, with the reveal of hidden aspects of the character’s personal lives driving the narrative home. A particular highlight being the scenes beautiful performed purely in candle light.
As with everyday life, there is no definitive ending, yet Steiner’s piece feels pertinent to our current climate: regarding both nature and the state of human interaction. Something can be learnt from this piece: we all need to be a little kinder to each other in these hard times we’re struggling through. It’s just a shame that Steiner’s first half struggles through, and is no match for the second.