The UK premiere of Angela Betzien’s The Dark Room, staged at the gorgeous Theatre503 in Battersea, presents us with a multitude of issues that are arguably relevant in many Western societies: police corruption, homophobia, domestic abuse, and above all – child neglect. The placement of children by social services into more ‘stable’ environments, a necessity in circumstances involving the mistreatment of these young people in families that may not be able – or willing – to look after them properly, is a permanently topical issue. In Australia’s Northern Territories, where The Dark Room is set, young people are taken to motels by a key worker when no other placement is available, simply to stay the night in a ‘safe place’, terrified as they are.
And so it is with this play; in a motel room near Darwin, key worker Anni is pacifying teenager Grace. Scared, dirty and troubled, Grace is as antagonistic as Anni is patient, and together they dance around one another in an attempt to suss the other out. An interesting stylistic tool employed within the text is to interweave stories, settings and time periods; so in one motel room we have Grace and Anni, whilst in another, a year later, we have couple Officer Stephen and ex-teacher Emma, returning from a wedding, pregnant (her) and drunk (him) and wishing themselves back in Sydney. Several months earlier, another motel room, and it’s Officer Craig – the groom in the future wedding Stephen and Emma attend – discussing his get out from an incident of gross misconduct, where Joseph (a boy like Grace, neglected, abused, forgotten) ended up dead.
Craig is essentially forcing Stephen to make a difficult choice – one that he will perhaps later regret when it rouses Emma’s suspicions about what really happened to Joseph that day.
It’s a tricky style, requiring some concentration from the audience, but worth it – the stories intertwine nicely, resulting in some lines being spoken simultaneously, as the characters weave their way through the space. Director
Audrey Sheffield ratchets up the suspense to great effect: we are as haunted by the past as the characters are, by the choices they have made, and the things they have seen. Ultimately, the play reveals how it can often be the messed up adult issues and decisions that can (sometimes unwittingly) most damage the young people they are meant to protect.
The acting is detailed and considered across the board, with some rather arresting emotional outbursts from Annabel Smith as Grace in contrast to Katy Brittain’s stoic motherliness in the character of Anni. Fiona Skinner gives Emma an understandable edge of wits-end frustration, as she battles with her husband Stephen’s party-boy, laissez-faire attitude to her needs (brilliantly captured by Tamlyn Henderson). Alasdair Craig is suitably domineering as the bully Craig, manipulating those within his wake, as a result of far deeper insecurities that perhaps Joseph (an eery Paul Adeyefa) managed to awaken – to his detriment.
With a gorgeous set by Jemima Robinson and some cracking lighting by Will Monks, The Dark Room is a suspenseful and unnerving examination of the critical societal failures towards young people today. It challenges audiences to rethink their own choices, parenting styles, and attitudes towards those we could stereotypically dismiss as the ‘troubled youth’, without stopping to consider how the lives of these children could be impacted by our (at best) ignorance or (at worst) utter disdain for their life experiences. A timely premise, The Dark Room deserves full houses in the hope that the pressing issues it contains can claim priority of place on the UK political agenda as soon as possible.
Review by Amy Stow
Deep in the night.
In a lonely motel room.
Somewhere in central Australia.
Six lost souls collide.
Isolated in dark and dangerous territory.
Haunted by the same tragic crime.
The Dark Room (Best New Australian Work, Sydney Theatre Awards) exposes the startling mistreatment of those most vulnerable in our society, at the hands of those who are meant to protect them. This intricately layered, psychological thriller reminds us that no matter how far apart we are in distance and time, we are all responsible for each other’s lives.
Paperbark Theatre in association with Thinking Aloud and Theatre503 presents
THE DARK ROOM
Written by Angela Betzien
Directed by Audrey Sheffield