Dark Sublime at the Trafalgar Studios: ‘Over-long and burdened with unnecessary romantic narratives’
Do you remember the one where Counsellor Troi was driven mad by an alien music box that beamed an endless waltz directly into her brain? How about when her mom visited and they had a telepathic throwdown on the bridge? No? Then you must not know your Star Trek: The Next Generation. You must not be a real fan. Michael Dennis’s Dark Sublime is at its best when it considers the nature of fandom, and our often inexplicable attachment to low-brow pop culture. Over-long and burdened with unnecessary romantic narratives, however, the show stumbles repeatedly. Not even the meta-delicious casting of Marina Sirtis, Counsellor Troi herself, can create sufficient interest to save Andrew Keates’s production.
The action begins with a drink. Marianne (Sirtis), a former television star, and Kate (Jacqueline King) are catching up about work. Marianne fills her time, and makes her mortgage payments, giving emotion intelligence workshops to non-actors. She still occasionally gets fan letters, and produces one such missive to distract her friend, who is describing her new lover, Suzanne (Sophie Ward). The letter writer is Oli (Kwaku Mills), an aficionado of Dark Sublime, the camp sci-fi programme Marianne headlined thirty years ago. The young man’s entry into her life forces her to confront its disappointments, both professional and romantic.
The show is funny in a 1990s sort of way. Jokes are cued up and visible at a hundred metres. Sirtis’s delivery in particular is reminiscent of a sitcom; she seems to pause after the punchline for the soundtrack. While King does good work with the few reflective moments afforded Kate, it is Mills who shines, expertly rendering both Oli’s enthusiasm as a fan, and his struggles as an awkward, unpopular youth. In an age in which viewers regularly petition to save their favourite shows, and when a disappointing Game of Thrones finale gets more press than the Brexit negotiations, the power of the fan is an interesting but underexamined area. When Oli explains to Marianne her programme’s significance in his life, the play finds its true theme. It’s a pity its focus strays so often.
The script includes two separate subplots concerning unrequited same-sex love. The storylines are not only distracting, but also underdeveloped. Dennis appears convinced that homosexual desire is sufficiently freighted that its mere existence generates dramatic tension. But it’s 2019. Being gay is not shocking, or even particularly interesting.
Furthermore, it’s 2019, and narratives centered on a meeting with a pop culture hero who turns out to be an alcoholic, embittered disappointment now feel as formulaic and dated as an episode of Dark Sublime. We know where the story is going from the outset. The fact that it takes nearly two-and-a-half hours to get there adds insult to interstellar injury. If only someone could have beamed me up at the interval.
Dark Sublime is at the Trafalgar Studios until 3rd August, 2019.
Photograph: Scott Rylander