The Dark Things
Ursula Rani Sarma’s first full-length commission for the Traverse offers a fascinating commentary on contemporary attitudes to death, specifically as manifested in the confessional, commercial nature of contemporary art. The central focus of the piece is the emotional bond between the only two survivors of a notorious bus crash: LJ (Suzanne Donaldson), a former lap dancer, now confined to a wheelchair and living off a compensation payment, and Daniel (Brian Ferguson), an award-winning young artist who walked away from the accident unscathed. Dubbed ‘unbreakable’ by the press Daniel augments his unsolicited newfound fame by opting to create an exhibition inspired by the crash and its aftermath.
Sarma’s satirical purpose is reflected in Neil Warmington’s set, each element of which is labelled in the style of an art gallery installation, as well as in some scenes of delicious black comedy, most strikingly the moment in which Danny and his shrink, Gerry (David Acton) – himself haunted by his wife’s death and troubled by his sexuality – wrestle around on the floor with a knife, each demanding to be put out of his misery.
The subplot, in which Danny’s sister Steph (Nicola Jo Cully) is duped by her boorish boyfriend Karl (Keith Fleming) into taking part in a dubious ‘audition’, adds a further queasy layer to Sarma’s unflattering portrayal of a world in which the attainment of celebrity, however fleeting or compromised, is deemed the pinnacle of achievement, though these characters feel rather thinly drawn compared to the central trio.
The relationships between Danny and LJ and Danny and Gerry are movingly depicted, each member of this bizarre love triangle frantically, vainly seeking in the other a route out of their pain. Sarma’s script subtly reveals the desperation beneath their deceptively banal conversations and entreaties. Donaldson brilliantly balances LJ’s mix of brittle fury and vulnerability while Ferguson gives a startling, nuanced performance as Danny, physically ringing the changes as his character increasingly struggles to suck in his inner turmoil. While the action varies in pace and tone, Dominic Hill’s production creates a tense, heightened atmosphere throughout, which keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 24 Oct