Anxiety is the prevailing motif of Charlotte Jones’ “The Dark,” which is illuminated throughout by the sound of a writer confronting some deeply personal and troubling fears. Although this play is apparently rooted in an actual event in Jones’ life (a 1998 wedding day rife with mishaps, power outages included), it gives off a dread born of the kinds of nightmares that don’t always vanish the minute you jolt yourself awake. Across 80 minutes, seven characters scare one another and themselves on their way to a dawn that brightens drolly into cliche (“tomorrow is another day”). But however much the sequence of happy endings suggest that the demons awakened have been laid to rest, I intend no criticism of the play, or of Anna Mackmin’s immaculate production, in maintaining that the closing balm isn’t believable for a second.
What does inspire belief is Jones’ ability to conjure a world at various removes from the verdant rural splendor of “Humble Boy,” this actress-turned-writer’s best-known play. (In the fall, she will be represented by her first musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Woman in White,” for which Jones is writing the theatrical book of the classic Wilkie Collins novel.)
Whereas “Humble Boy” took place in and around a garden, “The Dark” occupies your average terraced London street whose occupants — again par for the British course — keep warily to themselves. Come a sudden blackout, and these same urban dwellers are catapulted into fretful life, suddenly empowered (you’ll excuse the pun) to tread violently and intrusively into one another’s lives.
Lez Brotherston’s startling, ceaselessly watchable set — an essay in muted grays shimmeringly lit by David Hersey — shows a front door leading onto three separate playing spaces: a domestic triptych that readily dissolves as the darkness intrudes. On one side are the couple seemingly nearest to Jones’ heart: a pale young woman, Louisa (Anastasia Hille), suffering post-natal depression, while her architect husband, Barnaby (Matt Bardock), drifts across to a sexual dalliance in an adjoining home.
Himself stricken by the memory of the cot death at age 17 weeks of their first child, Barnaby attempts to comfort his and Louisa’s squalling second child, who is scarcely 3 weeks old. The infant, significantly, has not yet been named, as if to name the girl were also to kill it. (For what it’s worth, Jones and her husband, the actor Paul Bazely, themselves have a son, Daniel, who is 20 months old.)
Barnaby and Louisa want simply to see their baby into childhood, while the task of Brian (Roger Lloyd Pack), a truck driver on sick leave, and his hypochondriacal wife, Janet (Brid Brennan), is to connect with their adolescent son, Josh (Andrew Turner), who has sequestered himself away in angry teenage silence, his only companion the inevitable computer.
The power outage brings Josh from his room and into threatening contact first with Louisa and then with John (Stuart McQuarrie), a timid homosexual who seems to have dropped into “The Dark” by way of a play by Alan Bennett. Having aroused local suspicion that he may be a pedophile, John inspires the direct anger of his telephonist mother, Elsie (Sian Phillips), who barrages her son with the verbal equivalents of the hammer blows that Brian fantasizes about taking to his wife’s panicked head.
Imagine a more surreal Alan Ayckbourn, and you get some sense of the ebb and flow between the households, their nocturnal “reality” set against the backdrop of reality television and the steady bleat of the day’s more horrific news.
Woe and foreboding provide both the aural wallpaper of “The Dark” and the realm into which pretty much every character dips a dangerous foot. And yet, the violence in the play tends to be discussed and referenced rather than actually experienced: Indeed, it’s one of Jones’ neater jokes that the play’s primary act of aggression is committed not by one person against another but by a raging mother against a machine.
Is the play tidy? No, and nor should it be, coming at us instead as a dramatized fever dream that demands (and has, in Scarlett Mackmin) its own choreographer.
The entire cast navigates Jones’ existential twilight with remarkable ease, shifting in and out of focus as naturally as the characters glide between once-sharply demarcated homes.
If the Elsie/John segment has a shopworn feel about it, that’s no fault of McQuarrie and Phillips, the latter a one-time Donmar diva here sounding no less grand for having lowered her accent a social echelon or two. It’s Hille’s Louisa, though, who proves most haunting: “Nothing happened,” she concludes by way of restoring a calm that a Louisa deprived of light would never have allowed herself. And though her husband adds the assenting “yes,” you can’t help but offer the corrective that courses through “The Dark.” “Nothing happened,” argues this play. Yet.