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Dark Room
Etcetera Theatre
12th August 2017

★★★★☆

Publicity image for Dark Room

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

Well, bravo, Jim Mannering. Bravo. His latest play is not only cleverly written, but its setting and content perfectly suit the experimental, black box space of the Etcetera. This is a man who has put a lot of thought into crafting his latest work and it's paid off. In Dark Room, A (Roger Parkins), B (Mannering) and C (Rebecca Finch) have recently recruited D (Arthur Cull) to join their secret society, which seems to be nothing more exciting than a small group of ragtag misfits meeting every week in A's increasingly damp basement. Meetings are frequently disrupted by one of the members having to go see to A's elderly mother upstairs and despite a lot of talk, nothing ever happens. Would you pay £10 a week to play along to join a club like this?

I'm not sure I really want to say much more about the plot than it does deliver on what it promises. We watch from a room set in a photographer's dark room and the tone is certainly very dark. There's a lot of enjoyment to be had from just naturally watching the action unfold and following the different clues and double meanings dropped by Mannering throughout. As they say in the West End, "keep the secrets". When it comes to new writing, the best plays tend to be based on what the playwright knows inside out from personal experience and I sincerely hope that Mannering did not take too much inspiration from his former life as a social worker in this case.

Dark Room is an intriguing thriller with plenty of laughs along the way, with a lot of humour derived from Mannering's own performance as B. B is easily provoked by C, with Mannering's face turning so red at certain points that we're sure he's going to burst a blood vessel. He shakes with fury convincingly and is one of those rare creatures: a playwright who has written a part for himself because he's the right actor for the job, rather than it being a vanity project. As the only female of the group, C relishes the impact she has on all three men, playing the role of the seductress with perhaps a bit too much polish. Whilst there are moments of vulnerability from A, B and D in which their various masks slip, we don't get this range from Finch's performance: C is almost too convincing.

David Thackeray keeps the action fast-paced and the transitions between scenes as magnetic as the main action itself, making sure we never take our eyes off the stage. The use of a solitary light bulb suspended from the ceiling as in a typical photographer's workshop allows for the actors to move hypnotically in a half-light, the audience drawn in as C dances with A, mirroring the sexual game she is playing with all the men. Although it's difficult to understand why all four characters are drawn to each other given their very different personalities, this actually adds to the mystery. On the whole, Thackeray's take on the script is well-judged.

We'll be watching Mannering very closely after this - although, those who have seen Dark Room will be pleased to hear we're not photographers. Dark Room is a reminder of why new writing is always worth taking a gamble on. Innovative, dark, funny and mesmerising.

Dark Room opened on 10th August and runs until 14th August 2017 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)



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