Dark Land Light House – Bristol Old Vic Studio ***

Woman in space suit

Like buses, you wait for ages for one sci-fi horror to hit the stage and then two come along at once. Alistair McDowell’s X at the Royal Court split the critics and I have a feeling Dark Land Light House may do the same. It’s a beautifully realised production that builds up a taut, tense, spine-tingling atmosphere and looks amazing. They’ve really pushed the technical capabilities of the Bristol Old Vic studio as far as they can go, but one that is propping up a text that veers into portentousness and pays lip service to other works rather than having its own original spin on the ‘stranded alone in space with no one to hear you scream’ tale.

Jessica Macdonald’s Teller Grant has been sent up into The Lighthouse to take over its keeper role from Parcival (Derek Frood), a role that rotates every 10 years with a two-day handover in place as any longer and ‘the old keepers are liable to cave in the apprentices skulls. After Parcival makes a rather explosive exit, Teller is left alone with only the computer Hypatia (Laura Dannequin) for company. Strange things begin to occur but is this a sign of her sense of her loneliness and isolation or is something more sinister going on?

It’s a mark of the work that we seem to be ticking off a list of those other works that come before it. You tick off a mental list as you go along, the no one will hear you scream from Alien, the computer companion that staves off isolation but may have its own agenda from 2001 and Moon, a potential boarding of the ship by an unknown and threatening source from Sunshine. Those aficionados of its genre will no doubt find plenty more. It’s a work that wears its fandom on its sleeve and would make a fun drinking game for those with a strong head for it, but it is also a reminder you that you are not fully immersed in what you are seeing in front of you.

Tanuja Amarasuriya’s production manages to develop its own unique physical score to accompany the sound score that has been composed by writer Timothy X Atack and North Sea Navigator. Atack’s background as a composer/sound designer is clear, the works soundscape is a winner, a melange of heartbeats and nerve-shredding tunes. The two performers wear mics throughout, which keeps the dialogue surreal, distorted at one removed. It all helps build the sense of dread. Macdonald is a likeable companion, useful as she spends a majority of its 105-minute running time alone on the stage while Frood is a disorienting threatening presence, whose dialogue is pretty much incomprehensible with its strong Scottish burr and nonsensical words.

Rosanna Vize’s design has economically brought a spaceship into the studio while Ben Pacey’s lighting conveys the ever-changing atmosphere in the piece, from warm orange hues to cold blues and finally a blood red that suggests Hell itself may have come aboard the ship. There is no doubt these artists have brought some of their best work to date to the project. Yet ultimately, as is so often in drama, it is the text that defines its success and that is nothing more than a B- while the work around it is a golden A*.

Runs until 30 April 2016  | Image: Paul Blakemore

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