The Dark, Donmar Warehouse, London<br/>Homage to Catalonia, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds<br/>Festen, Almeida, London

Who turned out the lights?
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The Independent Culture


The confusions could be fantastic. The Dark at the Donmar and "The Dark" at the Science Museum's Dana Centre have both opened in the same week, which could lead to some entertaining encounters between our segregated "two cultures". You'd only need some retinal physiologists to wander into Charlotte Jones's new play about a power cut, mistaking it for the experimental exhibition where visitors are meant to grope around when the lights go out, and hey presto, you've got laboratory theatre with a whole new farcical dimension. Regrettably, Jones's drama, with its three neighbouring families nipping in and out of each others' homes, fails to illuminate.

The stage is open plan in Anna Mackmin's production, with bedrooms connected by looping staircases so that property boundaries blur. Yet the action never builds into the anarchic comedy this suggests. Funny one-liners do pop up, but everybody is basically unhappy and the switches in tone only generate an indeterminate seriocomic mood. Peter Shaffer'sBlack Comedy had much more fun with its lights out while Debbie Tucker Green's recent play Dirty Butterfly - depicting three adjacent council flats - was far more harrowing.

In Jones's scenario, Louisa is suffering from post-natal depression and her husband is anxious, too. Hearing the squalling baby from two doors along, Janet, struggling with her teenage son, Josh, deems them bad parents. Closeted in his room, Josh messes with pervs on the internet, while his father obsesses about murder. In the middle house, John has been beaten up for alleged paedophilia but insists he's an innocent loner caring for his old mum, Elsie. So, that makes three pairs of adults in strained relationships and three mothers with worrying children of different ages. Jones's structure is excessively neat.

The dialogue, meanwhile, is meant to be semi-symphonic or -operatic. However, orchestrating speeches so that people sometimes utter the same words simultaneously seems baldly simplistic. The technique does, nevertheless, convey how despair and fear are common experiences in today's urban society. "Blacking out" ends up becoming a metaphor with some interesting ambiguities, too. The phrase is used by those declining to discuss distressing events, yet in the gloaming, strangers meet and open up a little - as well as behave dismally.

For better or worse, Jones is tapping into a profound contemporary paranoia about criminal assaults, and two scenes are memorably nightmarish: the screwed-up Josh prowling about in a balaclava, lifting Louisa's baby from its cot, and later, sexually taunting John. Brid Brennan's scraggy Janet has a surprising seam of destructiveness, and Anastasia Hille's Louisa has one heart-wrenching speech about her first child's death. Nevertheless, Siân Philips' Elsie seems glazed and Andrew Turner's Josh is visibly older than his stated 14 years. Not a must-see.

From these domestic tensions, we leap to the Spanish Civil War and Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell's quietly hair-raising, autobiographical account of fighting in the front line against the Fascists. Like Orwell's brothers and sisters in arms, the troupe dramatising the book are an international bunch. The director is Josep Galindo, protégé of Barcelona hotshot Calixto Bieito. West Yorkshire Playhouse and Northern Stage co-produce, and the cast speak Spanish and English (with surtitles).

Unfortunately, this joint-effort is ruined by Galindo's failure to grasp that less is more. The evening begins winningly enough. The set looks starkly beautiful: flagstones and a steel wall. Craig Conway's Orwell steps forward, recalling his arrival in Barcelona and how the streets were full of revolutionary fervour. As he speaks, the rumbling of trains fills the air and, on the wall, we see historic film footage of a station draped in billowing banners and crowds of citizens learning military drills. Later come bleak news reels of the dead laid out in endless lines.

The trouble is, Conway shouts in a permanent passion, quite missing the wryness with which Orwell surveyed the ill-equipped chaos of this war. Meanwhile, Galindo descends into a disastrous, muddy mess of his own. The stage becomes pointlessly cluttered, actors double confusingly, and the screen is sometimes just filled with irrelevant nonsense. Worse, he tries to be trendy, throwing in feeble stand-up routines and self-indulgent punk numbers. Anarchy has rarely been so enervating.

You may wonder why anyone would rework Thomas Vinterberg's celebrated Dogme film Festen for the stage. David Eldridge's adaptation, directed by Rufus Norris, isn't as aesthetically radical and you may miss Vinterberg's disturbing hand-held camerawork and expressionistic editing techniques. However, this devastating family showdown becomes riveting as soon as the seemingly mild son, Christian (Jonny Lee Miller), decimates his father Helge's birthday banquet with a (now famously) shocking speech. Daringly sustained by Norris for several minutes, the silent tension at the dining table is electric, chilling and horribly funny. What also comes over very clearly in this production is how Christian is a modern Hamlet, exposing rottenness and accused of madness. Robert Pugh's stoutly menacing Helge can equally be seen as a symbol of political corruption. Other outstanding performances include Tom Hardy as Christian's vicious brother, Michael, and Claire Rushbrook as his ultimately courageous sister, Helene. Well worth catching.

'The Dark': Donmar, London WC2 (020 7369 1732), to 24 April; 'Homage to Catalonia': West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700), to Sat, then touring; 'Festen': Almeida, London N1 (020 7359 4404), to 24 April

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

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