Writer: Michael Dennis
Director: Andrew Keates
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Cult sci-fi classics have significant life beyond the rigid episodic structure of television, giving rise to conventions, online forums and fan fiction that allows devotees to live within the world of their favourite show for a few hours. Michael Dennis’ debut play Dark Sublime examines this phenomenon from the point of view of the actor whose experience on a shoddy production she had long-forgotten suggests that reality can never live-up to the fantasy.
Middle-aged actress Marianne is jealous of her friend Kate’s new romance with bank worker Suzanne and when a young fan offers to interview her she jumps at the chance. Soon a bond develops, and Oli convinces Marianne to reunite with her former colleagues for a Convention dedicated to 70s sci-fi classic Dark Sublime. As Kate moves further away, Marianne starts to question her feelings and whether revisiting the past can offer her any answers about the future.
There’s a lot to like in Dennis’ quirky story of unrequited romance, nicely revealing the strange experience of enthusiastic fandom for an actor who refuses to be defined by a single role she played decades before. The first half of the show in particular is full of interesting conversations as the audience is introduced to the comfortable friendship between Marianne and Kate, as well as the tentative connection with eager Oli.
Dennis’ writing is particularly good here, contrasting the often very funny segments from the Dark SublimeTV show which are full of the overly dramatic and peril-based exclamations of the genre, with the everyday ordinariness of Marianne’s real life. The homeliness of Marianne’s conversations about piccalilli stains, oat cakes and HRT create a earthy warmth in a character that may be recognised for her role in Emmerdale but is distinctly un-starry, wanting only a few drinks with her friends whenever she can – even adoration at the convention feels odd to her.
With recent productions of All About Eve and Present Laughter focusing on the backstage life of the actor, Dark Sublime is most successful in its exploration of fandom and Marianne’s reactions to this sudden attention. But in the second half of the play Dennis refocuses almost entirely on her unrequited love for Kate (shown in parallel to Oli’s equivalent feeling for his unseen friend) and it all starts to fall apart. Kate (Jacqueline King) is too thinly sketched to be a convincing object of adoration and when attention turns to her rather dreary relationship with the bland Suzanne (Sophie Ward) it all becomes rather listless.
Marina Sirtis is great as Marianne, full of sharp one-liners and an anecdote for every occasion. There’s a clear implication that she’s lived a bit – including a joke about a night with Moira Stuart and King Juan Carlos of Spain – and while she’s always craved some public attention, she has a real life outside of the roles she plays. But Sirtis also finds a layer of sadness beneath the surface, a fear not only of being alone but also of being irrelevant, that her greatest achievements on stage will be boiled down to a TV show she barely remembers. There is a complexity in Marianne that keeps you rooting for her even if you can’t entirely believe she’s loved Kate for years.
Kwaku Mills gives Oli just the right amount of obsessive excitement as he meets Marianne for the first time, slightly in awe of her while also eager to make every second count. The intergenerational friendship that develops between them is one of the show’s strength and Mills shows how close to the surface Oli’s emotions are and how easily wounded he is by the callousness of those around him. There’s also a fun role for Simon Thorp as Vykar a Captain Kirk-like figure in some acutely observed spoof scenes from the TV show that break-up the emotional dramas, and Mark Gatiss lends a Scottish accent to the voice of computer Horsley.
There’s some ingenious work in Tim McQuillan-Wright’s set that turns Marianne’s living room into an intergalactic spaceship using coloured door panels and a surprisingly multipurpose coffee table/console, although as scenes relocate to a hotel and the grounds of Alexandra Palace in the second half a more flexible or impressionistic set would help create the illusion of place.
Dark Sublime is overlong and loses focus after the interval but is nonetheless a solid debut from Dennis that offers lots of laughs. Dark Sublime doesn’t need the conventional love story, the world of science fiction fandom and the strange experience for an actor becoming a cult hero decades later is material enough.
Runs until: 3 August 2019 | Image: Scott Rylander.