Southwark Playhouse, London – until 22 February 2020
The world outside is going to shit and all you can rely on is the kind word of a gentle soul, if any still exist. So far so 2020, but this is also the set-up of Sam Steiner’s warmly inclusive You Stupid Darkness!, a Paines Plough and Theatre Royal Plymouth production seen on the south coast last year and now making its bow at the Southwark Playhouse.
Something apocalyptic has happened, society seems to be on the edge of collapsing and the shops are beginning to run out of doughnuts. Despite this catastrophic breakdown, volunteers still come once a week to answer the phones at Brightline, listening patiently to outpourings of woe from strangers, offering the hope of connection – a hope they come to rely on just as much.
Steiner’s minor-key writing keeps the focus very much on his quartet of workers, and the relationships that ebb and flow between them. We never learn what is happening outside, why they need the gas masks and it is to his credit, along with director James Grieve, that we never really need to. Instead, tales about tissue box inventors, trombone solos and tiny kindnesses are what populate this office.
And they do so beautifully, their gentle sway recalling something of Tom Wells’ knack for finding the engrossing in the everyday. Even when the pendulum goes for a bigger swing, as in the crushing one-two that ends the first act, a giddy happiness giving way to something much darker, Steiner and Grieve keep us rooted in a place where the small things – a rueful smile, the glow of a tealight – just might pull you through.
The refusal to open out the scope might frustrate some but for me, it intensifies the performances perfectly as it call out for empathy for everyone. Andrew Finnigan (so good in Drip) finds real charm as the work experience lad who grows in confidence, Andy Rush (another Wells alumni, this time for Jumpers for Goalposts) is brilliant as the sardonic but never unkind Jon, Jenni Maitland’s pregnant boss Frances is full-on mother hen to them all and Lydia Larson as the more fragile Angie is heart-breakingly good as we come to realise how much of her own trauma she is working through. A quietly, beautifully uplifting chink of light through the winter dark.