Sam Steiner’s first two plays were fearless acts of imagination, brilliantly realised. Staged on a budget of about 50p, his debut and breakthrough ‘Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons’ was set in a future in which language itself was rationed. By contrast, ‘King Kanye’ – his first show for Paines Plough, whom he hooks up again with here – was a broad, self-aware comedy about a young white woman who wakes up one morning to discover she is Kanye West.
‘You Stupid Darkess!’ pulls a similar trick to ‘Lemons…’, insofar as it’s set in a future in which the characters seem to be living their lives more or less as normal, with really weird things happening in the background. Frances, Jon, Angie and Joey are nightshift workers at a Samaritans-style counselling service called Brightline. They do pretty regular office stuff: bring in Jaffa Cakes, go out for doughnuts, make coffee, exasperatedly take calls from time-wasting perverts; bicker; bicker a lot. But although they never talk about it directly, the world seems to be ending. The exact nature of this catastrophe is never made clear: they need to wear gas masks to go outside, the pine trees have fallen over, an air-raid siren sounds at one point, the electricity is failing. Early on, Jon bitches that he was late to work because a bridge had collapsed. Frances is pregnant, and it’s suggested that this is now a rarity, by choice.
It’s a lovely idea: four flawed, decent people who don’t entirely get on, trying to do the right thing as the world literally falls apart. As a human drama, it works. Steiner has created a quartet of fine characters: Frances (Jenni Maitland), the group’s pathologically nice, somewhat fragile leader; grumpy Jon (Andy Rush), who comes to the shifts after his tuba lessons and is in the process of moving house; dippy, wittering Angie (Lydia Larson); and Joey (Andrew Finnigan), a shy 17-year-old schoolkid on some sort of work experience placement.
Somehow, though, the parts of James Grieve’s production – impressive in isolation – never really react with each other as they might, and it never manages to quite live up to its kitchen-sink apocalypse premise. The nature of the ‘ending world’ is intentionally extremely vague, but I think it would probably have been more interesting if they’d talked about it (there are constant allusions to it but no real discussion). I get that Steiner wants to avoid dystopian clichés, but ultimately, despite the gas masks and whatnot, this world doesn’t feel particularly different to our own (accepting you have a decent amount of pessimism).
Which again is probably the point, but while Steiner writes well, Alexander Zeldin’s National Theatre trilogy about precarious lives in austerity Britain has covered this ground better, very recently (particularly last year’s ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’, which was also about volunteers trying to do the right thing under impossible circumstances). ‘You Stupid Darkness!’ is a great idea, but it feels like Steiner has wilfully reined in his imagination to execute it, and in doing so the end-of-the-world stuff ends up feeling like window dressing that could be removed fairly easily. More apocalypse, please!