The Dark Room review at Theatre503, London – ‘intense Australian drama’
In 2016, an Australian TV documentary revealed shocking levels of mistreatment meted out to inmates – mainly aboriginal youths – in juvenile detention facilities across the Northern Territory. The CCTV still of a hooded boy, half-naked, strapped to a chair around the wrists and neck, drew parallels with methods of torture used at Abu Ghraib. In Angela Betzien’s hard-hitting The Dark Room – written in 2011 and drawn from first-hand experience of working with vulnerable children in remote central Australian communities – the image of a hooded teenager resonates horribly.
Underneath the cloth mask is Grace (Annabel Smith), a disturbed and abused girl brought to a stop-gap motel by long-suffering social worker Anni (Katy Brittain) while she attempts to find her proper accommodation. Jemima Robinson’s set is suitably bland and bleak – a plywood-walled room adorned with an air conditioning vent, a grey-blue mulch of a watercolour above the bed. Grace is by turns aggressive, sexually provocative and wheedling – the dialogue is skilfully sharp and discomforting, and both Smith and Brittain excel in drawing out an unstable dynamic.
Other narrative strands are woven in well. There’s ex-teacher Emma and her chauvinist, compromised cop husband Stephen, the former pregnant and the latter pissed, on the way back from his boss’ wedding. All have knowledge of an abused boy subject to a police cover-up, but this character, who appears briefly, seems underdeveloped. Canine imagery peppers the text – ideas of feral viciousness collide with vulnerability – but it’s sometimes heavy-handed. The denouement, too, feels a little pat.