Tag Archives: James Grieve

"You Stupid Darkness!" at the Southwark Playhouse

Super smart and far from monochrome, this transfer from Plymouth of Sam Steiner’s play proves to be the first must-see London show of 2020. It’s funny and moving, while quietly bold touches guide a sense of purpose delivered with impressive confidence.

Set in a helpline call centre in catastrophic times, you don’t need to have worked as a Samaritan to suspect the staff on stage are dubiously qualified. But, while this odd bunch might be amusingly ill-suited to deliver the care they offer, the hugely talented Steiner is an excellent listener. His ear for dialogue results in fantastic conversations, many one-sided, that are both comedic and emotional – a combination that makes the piece both delightful and intriguing.

Andrew Finnigan Lydia Larson Andy Rush and Jenni Maitland in You Stupid Darkness Credit Ali Wright
Andrew Finnigan, Lydia Larson, Andy Rush and Jenni Maitland

The recognisable characters, with well-developed personalities and problems, play a big part in the piece’s success. The performances do the writing justice. The group is run by Frances, as irrepressibly perky as she is heavily pregnant, beautifully depicted by Jenni Maitland. Chatty Angie first appears to be a comedy foil, but Lydia Larson ensures considerable emotional impact from her. A well-written teenage role that Andrew Finnigan is perfect for, and a depressed older man that Andy Rush makes appealing, complete a quartet who are eminently easy to watch. From traumatic calls to simple pleasures from a story-telling caller named Merlin, moments of tension and relaxation are magically sculpted with fantastic talent.

We could be in a superior sitcom were it not for the dark surround Steiner crafts. Our heroes face big problems – that they always carry gas masks tells you that much! This is not just a charity on its last legs, but a society facing its demise. Yet, in a daring move, we never know the specifics of the apocalypse being faced. Of course, it’s hard not to presume an environmental disaster, but that’s never stated. Maybe it’s an interesting, naturalistic, observation? But sparing details can frustrate viewers – it takes guts. The focus is everyday lives: the way Steiner understates this dystopia keeps the audience on its toes.

You Stupid Darkness! goes well beyond your average dark comedy to become a play about hope. Director James Grieve does an excellent job of giving the script room to develop. Time is needed for hope to show itself – now we see why insisting that the odds faced remain unknown is important. The final scene of keeping calm and carrying on is profoundly moving by embodying those very qualities; the play gets quieter and more controlled as conditions worsen. Motivating the skill this takes, and surely the key to what makes the play so winning, reveals the humble realisation from a playwright who has written a five-star banger of a play – that listening to stories might be just as important as telling them.

Until 22 February 2020


Photos by Ali Wright

“The Angry Brigade” at the Bush Theatre

Playwright James Graham continues his hugely successful engagement with politics by looking at the history of 1970s anarchist bombers, The Angry Brigade. The first act opens on a grim basement room in which four young coppers are secretly tasked with investigating the new phenomenon of homegrown terrorism. Parallels with current concerns aren’t forced, and the authorities’ efforts are often comic, as the police loosen their ties and discover pot in an attempt to understand this new breed of criminal. Harry Melling and Lizzy Watts excel with a variety of roles: police, victims and suspects. But the act belongs to Mark Arends as the impassioned young detective Smith, whose performance is perfectly attuned to the writing’s clever drollery.

Harry Melling and Pearl Chanda

After the humorous highs of the first act, the second act may slightly disappoint. Now with the Brigade, played by the same cast of four, the laughs are more guarded and there’s less period detail to poke fun at. Whatever you think of the politics, the ideas are presented (rather frighteningly) well. And the performances are full-bodied and intense, in particular those of Melling, again, and Pearl Chanda (as Anna Mendleson), whose fraught relationship provides a necessary emotional core to the section.

The temptation may be to see the play as split into two sides of the same story, both bravely sympathetic and boldly different. But The Angry Brigade is so meticulously written that parallels between the police and the protesters are developed with estimable precision. The crafted complexity of the script is highlighted by James Grieve’s direction and Lucy Osbornes’ design, which add a visceral, shock element to the dialogue – cast members slam filing cabinets to the ground to signify each bomb that goes off. No surprise, then, that this play feels like an explosive hit.

Until 13 June 2015


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Love, Love, Love” at the Royal Court

Playwright Mike Bartlett is very much the man of the moment: notable productions at the National Theatre have established his success as a writer keen to tackle current issues. Love, Love, Love sees his return to the Royal Court, where he was previously Pearson writer in residence, with a play that looks at recent history.

The story of a couple, presented in three acts, showing them as students, middle-aged parents and in retirement, has created characters that must be a joy for the performers. Victoria Hamilton and Ben Mills are both superb. Charting their impetuous elopement when young, their marital breakdown and their reconciliation, the pace of both writing and delivery are perfectly handled by director James Grieve. The laborious scene changes involved in Lucy Osborne’s design slows things down, but Bartlett’s control and the acting are so strong that the play remains compelling.

Love, Love, Love aims to be more than a family drama and here it does slightly less well. With an eye on the news, Bartlett is looking at the baby-boomer generation: where they come from, what they did and what their legacy will be. It’s entertaining stuff; of course it’s easy to mock the hippies, especially when they become yuppies. Any line bemoaning the fact that you live in Reading is going to go down well in Sloane Square.

Bartlett’s observations might be too tentative for some, too conservative for others, but his satire gets the laughs and the delivery from Hamilton in particular is show stopping. But doubts are raised. Surely a couple that grew up in the 60s wouldn’t think the occasional cigarette in later life the height of debauchery and the effect their parenting has on both their children is overstated.

Commendably, Bartlett’s story takes into account not just the predicament of the now middle-aged children of the baby boomers but their own perspective in older age – they feel they have worked hard and don’t understand their children’s reactions to their success. This is a story we hear less often and it’s a twist that should make you think, whatever your age.

Until 9 June 2012


Photo by Johan Persson

Written 5 May 2012 for The London Magazine