Review: You Stupid Darkness! (Southwark Playhouse)

Sam Steiner’s play has its London premiere at the south London venue

The cast of You Stupid Darkness!
The cast of You Stupid Darkness!
© Ali Wright

"Why can't you just be polite?"

A rare chink in Frances' otherwise eternally optimistic armour occurs in the final scene of ‘'You Stupid Darkness!'', the latest offering in a Paines Plough season that marks the exit of two joint artistic directors – James Grieve and George Perrin – and celebrates the start of two others – Katie Posner and Charlotte Bennett. This production takes place in the Brightline helpline centre, Amy Jane Cook's design of crumbling walls and charred plug sockets plastered over with posters and mantras that convey the fragile optimism the volunteers provide callers on the verge of giving up hope.

It's this thin veneer – vestiges of a once intact society now reduced to rubble – that makes the play so watchable. Sam Steiner's dark comedy projects a message of community spirit despite its dystopian setting. Frances valiantly leads her team of workers – Jon, Angie and Joey – once a week for a few hours to field calls and give advice to those on the other end of the line who need something to believe in.

Grieve's production is a consistent background hum, establishing a pleasing base level of noise and activity that makes for fascinating watching. The show opens with the audience playing flies on the wall, flitting between a series of one-sided, intricate and clever exchanges. The atmosphere is realistic yet light-hearted despite the play's subject matter, washing over the stage and bathing the listener in a warming, familiar glow.

And then, the characters' personal lives start to bleed into their professional duties. Frances is the mother figure, desperate to keep spirits up wherever possible. Joey is the new member of staff, a boy of 17 who often displays wisdom beyond his formative years. Jon is the grumpier male figure, bursts of reality countering Frances' unflinching positivity. And then there is Angie, a scene-stealing performance courtesy of Lydia Larson. Larson's pace, delivery and characterisation are effortlessly funny – her tone of voice, physical mannerisms and facial expressions deliver an entire narrative in a few short seconds. She can make the creation of the tissue box both laugh-out-loud funny and devastatingly poignant.

All the actors are ultimately watchable, relatable and likeable – You Stupid Darkness! is a play to laugh along to as well as silently weep with. The energy dips towards the middle – the play's humdrum vibe and rhythmic pacing become predictable towards the end of the first half. Grieve chooses to focus in on microscopic moments rather than on the overarching story. Interactions between Francis the teacher and Joey the student, or between Jon the practical paternal presence and Joey the youthful sponge, each reveal there is more to the character than their reassuring phone voice. They reach out to the afraid and scared, to those overwhelmed by the state of the world. And yet, each one is fragile themselves, doing all they can to hold it together in the face of imminent disaster.

There is no climax or conclusion, no definitive ending that resolves matters or relates the show back to the wider society. And nor should there be. Steiner's play is timeless – it transcends any specific period and paints a picture of a potential apocalypse that seems inevitable in the current political climate. Regardless of the gas masks or the flooding or the working by candlelight, the helpline's workers continue. There is beauty in their resilience.