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The Dark Room

4 starsNew Diorama Theatre, until 28 April (not Mon/Tue), 7:30pm - 8:30pm (tickets and information)
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

The spectre of Nazism stalks a 21st-century secondary school, in this free-handed rework of Bertolt Brecht’s Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.  It’s a bold move, to follow in those particular footsteps; but through intelligent allegory, precision choreography, and some genuinely hilarious lines, writer-director David Byrne finds new things to say about the truism that bad things happen when good people stand back.

From the vantage-point of 2012, it’s easy to forget that Arturo Ui was set in Brecht’s own times – and so, it’s entirely appropriate that Byrne has updated it for ours.  His satire’s gentle, but it’s surgically planned, complete with hacking scandals, Facebook, and other knowing nods to the foibles of our day.  And just as Brecht reflected Weimar Germany in a Chicago cabbage patch, so The Dark Room charts an absurd path to dictatorial power… calling at the tuck shop, school disco, and student canteen.

A strong cast make the most of their cartoonish roles.  I particularly enjoyed the bleeding-heart teacher June, portrayed with just the right amount of misplaced earnestness by actress Natalie York; and Andy McLeod also impressed, bringing a poignant humanity to his thuggish yet damaged Luke.  Reflecting its origins in Brecht, the whole story’s told in flashback by the would-be Führer, Ruth, who replays scenes from her spine-chilling past in the style of a 1980’s video game.

Truth be told, that particular motif grew slightly wearying, but some striking graphic projections made up for any flaws.  The imagery, in fact, is a highlight throughout; the props are stark and basic, but the designers have a few tricks up their sleeves.  And you’ll be surprised how much they can do with a pair of giant blackboards – which slide intriguingly back and forth, with cast and props tucked behind them, in an entertaining game of real-life find-the-lady.

It’s beautifully choreographed, but it could be better-paced.  The opening scene – essentially an extended teaser – seemed oddly reined-back, with its sometimes-raucous soundtrack calling for a more rumbustious approach on stage.  Conversely, Ruth’s ultimate ascent to power felt rushed, for all that it was terrifying in its swift brutality.

For the greater part, though, this play is everything I’d hoped it would be: tight, fast-paced, and darkly comedic.  The jokes are slow-burners, but burn brightly all the same, and I laughed along despite my growing horror at the manipulative Ruth’s cruelty to her peers.  Ed Cobbold’s James, the nice guy who finishes last, proves especially touching – and his tragic undoing is all the more haunting because it’s hinted at rather than shown.

The Nazis’ notorious warning from history needs little amplification, but it gains an added significance when shifted to the present day.  The moral gets a little lost in an overly layered finale, yet it’s scarily clear that the events portrayed really could happen here.  In fact – if you didn’t have your bluffer’s guide to Brecht on hand – you might emerge from The Dark Room thinking of Westminster, not Weimar.  It’s impossible to know what the great man would have thought; but I, for certain, approve.

This is an updated version of this review, published on 25 April 2012.  The original version incorrectly stated that the teacher June is played by Madeleine MacMahon.  In fact, June is played by Natalie York, while Madeline MacMahon plays the antagonist Ruth.  We are very sorry for our mistake.

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