ALTHOUGH a tad too long and the theatre rather cold, there is much to admire in the Progress Theatre’s amateur production of Dark Sublime.
The play, written by Michael Dennis and directed at the Progress by Aidan Moran, is focused on the relationships – short and long term – forged by Marianne (a delightful Melanie Sherwood). Friendships that are not without fault lines.
Marianne is a faded TV actress whose star has descended. She’s done everything from Emmerdale to Birds of a Feather, but lives off acting crumbs, lives alone and likes a tipple or three. Her long-standing friend Kate (Ali Carroll) is a regular visitor, but when Kate confirms she has found a new girlfriend in caring and kindly banker Suzanne (Stephanie Gunner-Lucas), tension fills the air.
Simultaneously, Marianne is contacted by 21 year old fan Oli (an excellent Dean Stephenson) who runs a website devoted to a sci-fi show (Dark Sublime) that she starred in during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He is besotted by her, Dark Sublime and the character (Ragana) she played. Oli, who works during the day as a book seller, is nerdy, twitchy and socially awkward. But Marianne enjoys being flattered and her ego stroked – and for a while, you wonder whether a relationship is forming. The wine flows as strongly as a ghyll after a Lake District downpour.
When the four of them meet, Marianne goes into a jealous meltdown. It all gets messy.
It ends up with Marianne attending a Dark Sublime convention in sunny Walsall in the West Midlands that Oli has organised. It’s an experience she finds difficult to deal with, especially as other actors from the show – most notably the obnoxious Bob (Gareth Saunders) – are present. But, ultimately, it proves cathartic as Marianne begins to put the pieces of her life together and mends a fractured friendship.
With regular flashbacks to the sci-fi TV show (based around some wonderful cameos by Saunders as a strutting Vykar), this is a demanding show to stage, but the Progress pulls it off, thanks to some clever set designing from Aidan Moran.
There is plenty to laugh at (a rich vein of humour runs through the entire play), but ultimately it’s Marianne’s coming to terms with her age and relationships past and present that is the play’s beating heart.
Sherwood gives Marianne a vulnerability we can all identify with as we get older – a distant youth, former glory and time catching up with us as we enter the winter of our lives. Forgetfulness. A focus on the past. A mind drifting off at will. Not quite Norma Desmond, but echoes of. Sherwood captures it perfectly.
For a Reading based theatre company that is tight on money and self-funding, Dark Sublime is an accomplished production. The costumes – especially Ragana’s and Vykar’s – are especially impressive
Dark Sublime runs until 22 January. Bring a coat and thermal gloves.