The Dark Things ****

The Dark Things is a bleakish production filled with foreboding.  It is shrouded in death and desperation and contains only a few fleeting glimpses of light.  It is difficult to watch at times, but it is also compelling, for the most part.

Daniel is an aspiring artist who has recently grabbed the public’s attention as a survivor of a deadly bus crash.  He is plagued with survivor’s guilt and is constantly questioning why he not only survived but managed to do so unscathed.  He has since befriended LJ, the only other person who survived the crash but did so at the expense of her legs.  Daniel’s quest for understanding takes him to Gerry, a therapist who is battling his own demons.  Daniel’s troubles are also affecting his relationship with his sister Steph, who desires the fame her brother has and thinks she might have a shot through current squeeze Karl.

The play is full of hurt characters looking for solace and understanding.  Though the supporting characters each have things they want, it is through Daniel’s personal journey, both for clarity and inspiration for his upcoming art exhibitions, that everything comes to pass.

And though there are some humorous moments, the play is grim.  There are some harrowing moments that are difficult to watch, and though the play is not as predictable as it first seems, it is still clear from the outset that not everyone is going to make it out alright.

The cast is uniformly brilliant.  Each actor doesn’t just play a part but completely embodies their role, and it makes for one of the best ensemble performances of the year.  Suzanne Donaldson’s LJ and David Acton’s Gerry are two heartbreaking characters that are completely sympathetic.  Keith Fleming is almost unrecognisable as the slimy and dubious Karl, and Nicola Jo Cully is a spark of energy as Steph.

But this is Brian Ferguson’s production, and his Daniel is one of the most compelling characters I’ve seen in some time.  Every nuance, movement and line delivery is created in such a way that it is nearly impossible to take your eyes off him, even when he isn’t the main focus of action.  His complete focus and attention to detail is almost awe-inspiring, and it proves why Ferguson is such a sought-after performer.

As for Ursula Rani Sarma’s script, things aren’t quite so bright.  Her script is full of great characters, lines and scenes, but there is a disjointed feel to it all, and it comes across more like a collage than as a smooth work.  That isn’t necessarily a flaw; in fact by structuring the action that way the supporting characters are given far more opportunity to shine.  However, by making such a choice, and by covering such harsh material, the story does feel a bit heavy-handed at times.  There is much to admire, but it’s very difficult to say one ‘likes’ it.

However, this is where director Dominic Hill comes in.  He has taken the play and has created a mosaic of images that are arresting.  The choice of turning the Traverse 1 space into a thrust not only opens the dramatic action but allows the audience more access into the lives of these people, and there are some unforgettable moments that not only heighten the intensity but actually manage to make everything feel more humane and involving, which this production sorely needs.

There are many great things about The Dark Things that make it worth watching.  It may be a bit too harsh at times, but the performances and direction are so sharp that it’s worth the journey.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

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