James Christopher, former Chief Film Critic of The Times, Deputy Theatre Editor at Time Out, and Chief Theatre Critic of the Sunday Express, is certainly no stranger to the arts. But, in Charlie’s Dark Angel, we see Christopher turn new-boy in this his first original stage play, produced in conjunction with is theatre company, The Company of Strangers.
A psychological study of the hold that memory has over the present and the lengths to which we would go to restore and preserve them, action opens with the chance reunion of two old school friends. Set in a farmhouse on the border between Suffolk and North Essex, suspicions are quickly roused that things are not all they seem. The reappearance of Eric and his young Ukrainian girlfriend reawaken a dark memory in Charlie, that drive the plot to a harrowing denouement.
The first thing to note about Christopher’s production are the dual genres that it bills itself as drawing upon. I would refute its status as a “black comedy”. Yes, there are moments of humour (I am recalling the opening scene of the second act in which Charlie attempts to reawaken his creative spirit through a self-help programme), but this is not its driving force. A more apt assignation of style comes in the fateful motifs of film noir that pervade the production. The characteristic moods of claustrophobia, paranoia and nihilism are most certainly present, a series of clues that something is amiss contributing to an increasing tension.
The sparse aesthetic of the set, comprised of a few chairs, tables, an oft-used drinks trolley and an integral well upstage, contribute to this style. The back lighting during sporadic moments of flashback are reminiscent of noir cinematography and serve to make material the murky space that is memory.
Porter’s Charlie and Tincey’s Susan give wonderfully subtle performances, evoking a naturalism that gives great poignancy to their wish for a child and the strain that this puts upon their relationship. Phoebe Pryce gives a superbly understated performance as Ella, navigating the somewhat clichéd aspiring artist role with ease. If this is her first professional theatre debut, then she is sure to have a wonderful career ahead of her. There is something disparate to Kieran Gough’s Eric, however. He doesn’t quite match the subtlety of the co-stars; there is something predictable in his performance, lacking the darkening psychological descend that his narrative so required.
This is a good debut play. It maintains interest and has the adequate twists and turns that comprise an engaging narrative. It is certainly worth a visit to one of London’s more hidden theatre to see what the Company of Strangers are all about. I certainly expect to see a lot more from them in the coming years.