Humble Boy, a quietly ruminative, beautifully constructed drama about the ties that unbind a mother and her son, was always going to be a tough act for Charlotte Jones to follow. But she's done so with tremendous accomplishment in a tensely textured, hugely atmospheric new play called The Dark that pulses with urban dread, despair and darkness, literal as well as metaphorical.
Eight light bulbs hang over various rooms in the shabby multi-levelled house that designer Lez Brotherston has created on the Donmar stage. The house has been divided into flats that provide a home for three families. In Jones' vivid snapshots of domestic life, one couple Louisa (Anastasia Hille) and her architect husband Barnaby (Matt Bardock) have just had a baby, and the sound of its crying echoes around the house.
Meanwhile, a desperately lonely man John (Stuart McQuarrie), who works in a video shop, negotiates around the demanding elderly mother he lives with (Sian Phillips). Meanwhile outside, a braying crowd of teenagers who suspect he's a paedophile constantly taunt him, but this is a case of mistaken identity due to his unfortunate resemblance to a picture in the local paper.
Then there's Brian (Roger Lloyd Pack), a lorry driver who blacked out at the wheel and is haunted by the major catastrophe he narrowly avoided. His wife Janet (Brid Brennan) is plagued by fears of cancer; and their troubled 14-year-old son Josh (Andrew Turner) locks himself upstairs in front of his computer and won't talk to his parents.
In overlapping scenes that reveal each family's pained isolation, Jones provides a short, intense, and bleakly poetic study of their dislocation from each other. But a sudden blackout precipitates a night of revelation and suddenly brings them all into a strange kind of collision.
Though Anna Mackmin's production isn't always ideally blocked in the Donmar's three-sided configuration, with the view of key moments lost even from my central seat, it has the texture and intensity of real life that appropriately comes into and out of focus by turns. As life goes falteringly on, this strange and haunting play exerts a gripping hold, and the superb ensemble animate it with a powerful sense of foreboding and remorselessness, grittily underscored by Gareth Fry's soundscape.
- Mark Shenton