The Dark, Donmar Warehouse, London

Black comedy lights up the murkier side of modern living
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The Independent Culture

There can be few more piquantly paradoxical ways of lighting up a stage than by dramatising the consequences of a power cut. The result was uproarious farce in Peter Shaffer's classic Black Comedy. The idea is deployed more hauntingly, if also comically, in Charlotte Jones' new play The Dark, premiered now in a finely orchestrated, spooky-funny and luxuriously cast production by Anna Mackmin.

There can be few more piquantly paradoxical ways of lighting up a stage than by dramatising the consequences of a power cut. The result was uproarious farce in Peter Shaffer's classic Black Comedy. The idea is deployed more hauntingly, if also comically, in Charlotte Jones' new play The Dark, premiered now in a finely orchestrated, spooky-funny and luxuriously cast production by Anna Mackmin.

On the stage of the Donmar Warehouse, three adjacent homes are exposed - and partly superimposed - by Lez Brotherston's arresting open-plan set. The piece taps into fantasies about the bizarre juxtapositions that would be brought to light if the walls between our separate living compartments were to dissolve - someone doing a crossword on the loo, just a couple of feet away from a young mother in the depths of post-natal depression who is, in turn, just a few yards from a troubled 14-year-old boy in a computer chatroom.

This is Jones's first stage play since her big West End hit, Humble Boy, which I found accomplished but essentially ersatz, no more than the sum of the parts that it had borrowed from Ayckbourn, Stoppard and Shakespeare. You are reminded of Ayckbourn again here, along this time with Joe Orton and Alan Bennett in, say, the relationship between the tormented, gay live-in son (excellent Stuart McQuarrie) and his dogmatic, querulous old mother (Siân Phillips), who fancies that same-sex is "all furtive looks in the greenery". And such is the concentration of casebook-study emotional and social problems in these three households that you feel at moments that you are watching Black Comedy crossed with a recruitment drive for the Samaritans.

But the play does capture with a sharp, compassionate wit the contradictoriness of our age, where Big Brother and chatrooms are our idea of intimacy. Enhanced by a lovely performance from Anastasia Hille, the strand about being so afraid of a second cot death that you can hardly risk loving your new-born baby springs, I guess, from something close to first-hand experience.

And one of the best things Jones has yet written is the piercingly suggestive scene between the gay man, who has been mistaken for a paedophile and battered, and the confused teenage computer freak who has come to taunt him with self-despising sexual temptation. The Dark will only increase this playwright's fan base - barring, of course, real-life power cuts.

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