In David Byrne’s The Dark Room we witness the rise of Ruth (Madeleine MacMahon) as she asserts her power in the new school she has joined. From bottom of the classroom pile, she plots, schemes and blackmails her fellow pupils and teacher to reign supreme over the school, becoming Head Girl, leading the school council and being editor of the school’s newspaper, The Crow. No one can stop her, and no one is safe from her evil plan. With inspiration from Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Byrne’s production, his first at the helm of the New Diorama, is a stark, slick and surprisingly sinister production packed into an hour’s playing time.
The comparisons to Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui are clear throughout, and so, too, are Brecht’s stage mechanics in Byrne’s staging, albeit with a modern day twist. Direct address, stock characters, a near-empty stage and sparse lighting can all be ticked off the Brecht bingo card, but it is within the imaginative and inventive playing of Byrne’s direction that The Dark Room becomes an entertaining event. The characters seemingly appear and disappear behind revolving blackboards, and a witty projection brings a gameic element to the show, where the cast are players and score points based upon their moves against each other. It’s a clever layer that seems fitting for the production, offering continuous laugh-out-loud moments as one player has ‘game over’ whilst another ‘levels up’.
It’s not all about the playing either; underneath the childish games we witness the true extent of those who strive to get somewhere and don’t care who they knock down to get there. At the end, Ruth has succeeded through university in much the same manner as her school years and now faces a panel in an interview for a top job. The comparisons between these adult figures and Ruth’s classmates are evident (they’re played by the same cast, and purposely take on characteristics of their younger parts), and as Byrne notes in the programme it’s “‘about how things develop and grow… you won’t see our characters as children but rather as the adults they are going to turn in[to]”: a nice message, even if the villain wins all the same.
The strength of The Dark Room lies in the clever and slick direction by Byrne coupled with the strength of the PIT ensemble (which Byrne is also the Artistic Director of, bringing his two companies together for the first time). There are continually funny moments as Byrne’s script knocks out surprising one-liners, especially from the geeky newspaper editor Ethel played by Leah Milner and the too-perfect-for-school Jessica (Hannah Duncan). The production is greatly helped by a very grounded MacMahon as the sinister get-what-she-can Ruth who narrates throughout.
There are some moments of weakness, it can’t be denied, but these are more to do with having the piece up and on its feet than obvious structure or directional flaws. With a piece that demands such slickness it requires the cast to be continually poised ready to throw themselves behind screens or roll on desks and chairs to transform the black box studio of the New Diorama Theatre. If there is one thing that The Dark Room does nail perfectly, it is how theatre can be so joyous without large special effects or a need for fancy mechanical sets. Sometimesthe simplicity of a stage trick or clever use of the space can deliver the story effectively, and in the case of The Dark Room, it leaves you with one entertaining evening worth visiting. A clever and witty modern-day approach to celebrating the work of Brecht.
The Dark Side is playing at the New Diorama Theatre until 28 April. For more information and to book tickets, see the New Diorama Theatre website. Photography by Richard Davenport.