Open hailing frequencies – It’s never a good idea to meet your idol, apparently. The chance of them disappointing you is high and you may just find your dreams shattered beyond repair, but what if you were able to make friends with them? This is just one of the many questions explored in Michael Dennis’ debut full length play, Dark Sublime at Trafalgar Studios 2.
Taking inspiration from those tele-fantasy shows that were so prolific in the seventies and eighties, the title of the play refers to a science fiction show which has long been forgotten to obscurity, or so it seems; because one young fan, Oli, has rediscovered it, started a website and is rebuilding a fandom from the ground up.
It’s star, Marianne, who later went on to appear in Emmerdale, has all but forgotten its existence, but does recall an unscreened episode that the fandom is unaware of. She lives her life with a glass in hand, waiting for the next job to come in, and in denial that she’s in love with her best friend, Kate. Kate might have a new lover, but Marianne now has a new fan to share her anecdotes with, and to receive adulation from.
While exploring some difficult themes, Dark Sublime is incredibly funny, to the point where the audience were often in fits of hysterics for long periods of times. Dennis’ writing has a naturalistic wit that is so quintessentially British, wonderfully dry one liners and put-downs mixed with sight gags; Marianne always seems to have a bag of sweets which are perfectly suited to the situation she finds herself in, think Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies set in the mess hall of the Starship Enterprise.
Some of the ‘lost’ episode is recreated in various scenes through both acts, towards the end though we get an extended cut of the final scene. It’s designed to show the parallels between this science fiction fantasy and the real life relationships which have been playing out simultaneously. In truth it takes us away from the story we’ve become most invested in, breaking us out of the spell which has been cast over us, as the science fiction and LGBTQ+ communities combine to create a touching and captivating life force.
It often feels like we are watching three different plays; one about Marianne and her struggle with reliving the glory days, one about the science fiction show, and a third about relationships. Thanks to director Andrew Keates, it does work, and the trio of themes come together with startling precision, but there is a sense we are being overwhelmed. The other constraint it faces is the size of the stage, Tim McQuillen-Wright’s design of Marianne’s flat is beautifully authentic, but it struggles to pass as a motorway Premier Inn or the park at Alexandra Palace, and as holodecks still haven’t been invented, the audience do require some degree of imagination here.
Marina Sirtis makes her west end debut as Marianne and it’s a superbly accomplished performance. Sirtis very discreetly draws out the inner turmoil of Marianne, lightly contrasting the characters need for validation with her ambivalence towards the show that made her a star, “it only helped to pay the mortgage” she screams in confused frustration. Sirtis also makes an art out of the insults she fires like photon torpedoes at her former co-stars.
Jacqueline King gives a hugely authentic performance as Kate, it is in this character we see ‘love’ being explored from all angles, and the view of an outsider being fully considered. As Oli, Kwaku Mills shines as the brightest star, his excitement and exuberance is palpable, drawing the audience forward in their seats to drink in his effervescence, while he also manages to create a meaningful character that we can see as a person, not just a ‘fan’.
Dark Sublime is no ordinary piece of theatre, it blends different worlds with a credibility that could only be found by a creative team who have lived this play. But it is perhaps trying to be too much, the relationship between fans and celebrities, alongside the backstage gossip, is where the bounty really lies. But with some minor tweaks and possibly a bigger stage, there’s no reason why this play shouldn’t live long, and prosper.