Hope Theatre, London – until 27 November 2021
Pete (Tom Edward-Kane) is lonely. His dad is sick, his mother dead, his job boring. His only love is his cello, until he connects to Angie through a lonelyhearts ad.
However, Angie (Lucia Young) is not quite what she seems, sharing her image for inspiration with scammer Dave (Heider Ali), a wannabe writer who crafts love letters for unsuspecting men who can offer money and gifts to the women they think connect with them and their lives.
In Kathy Rucker’s new play Darling, locations and realities are kept deliberately vague. The set is made up of boxes to suggest a desk, office pigeonholes, a TV, and more. Photographs dot the walls: from unknown women used as bait to a portrait of Ernest Hemingway.
Backstories are also kept vague, even that of cancer-stricken Ray (Colin Bruce), who at first seems a difficult and challenging parent invalid, but later shows a softer side of worry about how Pete will cope with life on his own.
The second half is pacier, smarter, and fills in a lot of the blanks. Clothes, a cello, a box of wigs, a clunky old typewriter set the 80s scene with snatches of songs from the era which are both underexposed and totally relevant. Both Jida Akil’s set and Jack Wills’s lighting capture the mood.
Darling is a clever piece of work, but perhaps might benefit from being performed straight through without an interval. There are twists and turns – some irrelevant – and moments of both amusement and pathos.
Some bits around Pete’s past and obsession with his mother could stand further exposition, while a sequence where various ladies for the lonely are created could benefit from a trim. The performances are uniformly excellent, with complex characterisations throughout.
Scott Le Crass’s direction is fluid and full of flair, while the staging and blocking fills every inch of the Hope’s stage. You can get no nearer to the action than this, and it is one of the things I love about fringe theatre.