Review: The Blackest Black, Hampstead Downstairs

“I’ve become emotionally flatulent”

Now this is what the Hampstead Downstairs is for. As their self-described experimental space which operates outside of the conventional press night circuit, many of the productions that have taken place here haven’t really felt like they were pushing too many boundaries – with their playtexts and production values, a pleasingly high standard has been achieved but perhaps at the cost of just a little daring. But Jeremy Brock’s The Blackest Black, directed by Michael Longhurst, reintroduces that concept to create a piece of theatre that really does dare to be different.

Brock is better known in the worlds of film and television (scripting the likes of Mrs Brown, The Last King of Scotland and co-creating Casualty) but in this play, he looks at the opposition of science and art and whether a relationship can ever thrive between the two. The quantifiable quiet of astronomer Martin’s Arizona-based space observatory is shattered when Abi, a British artist-in-residence is nepotistically appointed above his head. Sparks immediately fly when the pair meet, opposites attract and all that, but her presence heralds a greater disturbance for all concerned.

The intersection of art and science is clearly one that appeals to Longhurst – his enormously successful production of Constellations is testament to that – and it is in strong evidence here too. With designer Oliver Townsend (and some nifty stagehand work in the interval), he delineates vividly the methodical order of the scientist’s world and the carefree abandon that allows artistic impulse to run free. And he keeps a deliberately restrained rhythm to the piece, allowing in quiet expanses of space to evoke Martin’s internal landscape, the Arizona desert or even infinity and beyond.

And Brock succeeds well in creating protagonists to engage with. John Light’s brooding intensity is well-suited for the repressed Martin, his calculated calm tempered with explosions of passion as Charity Wakefield’s Abi rocks his world. Wakefield captures the blinkered certainty of the artist whose process is valued above everything. Their debates spark with life and the contrast in their worldviews always compelling – I particularly loved the deconstruction of the sentiment about light being the DNA of space.

There’s quietly effective work from Ian Bonar too as Martin’s withdrawn colleague Chuck, unwillingly drawn into the strange vortex between this unlikely pair. But the haunting beauty comes mostly from the particular pleasures of the second half – an artistic reverie in which Wakefield beautifully depicts both frailties and strengths against Light’s attempts to maintain his implacable demeanour. It very much beats to the sound of its own drum and is all the more effective for it. 

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 8th February

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