Nostalgia’s not what it used to be, as the joke goes. It certainly isn’t if you happen to be Oli, dedicated fan of the classic ’70s and ’80s British ITV sci-fi drama series Dark Sublime. It seems sometimes the old adage does ring true, and you should never meet your heroes. Especially not if one of them happens to be fading actress and borderline alcoholic diva Marianne Hogg.
Everyone remembers Dark Sublime, the popular teatime – and totally non-existent – Thames TV production. Of course they do. Even though the show’s totally made up, it’s a part of your DNA, particularly if you’re of a certain age. That’s because of shows like Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, The Tomorrow People, Into The Labyrinth, and many other telly programmes which were once staple viewing, long before the dreaded ‘cult’ designation came about – these were all a bread-and-butter part of mainstream schedules, and proud of it to boot.
That’s why Dark Sublime happens to feel so familiar, even though it’s actually been wholly invented for the purposes of this new play of the same name – it’s cut from the same cloth, and feels wholly plausible, like it’s something you’d watched in your youth. Writer Michael Dennis’ very first script for the stage shows that he knows his stuff, and is not only a labour of love, but also a love letter to the sort of shows which garner a devoted – and, sometimes, overly ardent and enthusiastic – following. Dennis seems to know only too well the pitfalls of fandom.
There are plenty of examples of artistes having a complicated relationship with their admirers. Look at Leonard Nimoy, with his I Am Not Spock, which got all sorts of brickbats thrown in his general direction. For years, Tom Baker avoided association with Doctor Who like it was the plague, only to slowly come round to making appearances, to the point where now he adores being venerated like he’s a god (which, let’s be honest, he may as well be). Even the notoriously reclusive actor Christopher Eccleston has started to turn up at Comic Con-type events (although it means about ninety quid for a signature, if you’re so inclined to be barely tolerated for your lucre).
There’s also the much weirder side of the fan coin, which falls into the territory that saw ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog end up in a relationship with a fan who later became her stalker. With Dark Sublime, we approach that line, as Oli (Kwaku Mills) – eager 21-year-old fan of a show which had ended decades before he was even born – approaches fading star Marianne Hogg (Marina Sirtis), in order to interview her for his podcast and website – the premier source of online info about Dark Sublime. The two forge an unlikely friendship (or at least sufferance), as the play poses the question: can you truly be friends with a fan?
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Marianne is past her acting prime, doing the odd workshop here and there, but all the juicy parts seem to have dried up. The only thing that hasn’t dried is her supply of alcohol, which is shared freely with her longtime – and also long-suffering – friend Kate (Jacqueline King), who just happens to have embarked on a new relationship, with a much younger woman, Suzanne (Sophie Ward). Jealous of not having all of Kate’s attention, Marianne’s ego is stoked by all Oli’s adoration, making her behave like a prima donna, which threatens to turn her into a bigger monster than she ever had to face on the show.
The cast has a strong sci-fi pedigree, not least of which is Marina Sirtis’ 30+ year association with playing Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Mark Gatiss (he of The League Of Gentlemen fame) has written for, and appeared in, Doctor Who, as well as also acting in the 2005 live BBC remake of The Quatermass Experiment – here, he provides the voice of ship’s computer Kosley, as featured in flashbacks to episodes of Dark Sublime. We also have Jacqueline King, who may be best known for mothering Catherine Tate in Doctor Who, when she portrayed Sylvia Noble, alongside David Tennant and Bernard Cribbins.
Sirtis is perfect casting, as she’s the sheer antithesis of her character – whereas she ended up over in sunny Hollywoodland, in a multi-million dollar TV production which was known worldwide, Marianne peaked when she was cast in a low-budget parochial series which filmed in a Bristol knicker factory for one of its instalments, and went out in the ignominious timeslot between game show Mr & Mrs and the early evening news. It also makes sense to have Sirtis, who’s well versed in fandom, whereas Marianne is a total novice, and she ends up attending her very first ever convention. In Walsall.
For anyone who’s ever seen her holding court at a convention or event, Sirtis is a big personality, which is just right for the role of Marianne. King and Ward make an adorable couple, and it’s wonderful to see older gay women getting representation here. Mills is a breakout star, perfectly capturing the youthful enthusiasm of the unjaded, innocent fan, who ends up going on a long journey, finding a bit of tarnish on his love of the show by the end, with a hint of disillusionment creeping in. Truly, the ascent of fan.
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Rounding out the cast is Simon Thorp, who we mainly see as Vykar in excerpts from Dark Sublime, acted out with all the everso-slight cheese and ham of classic British TV sci-fi, yet with conviction and heart too, never tipping over into being parody or spoof. You have to remember that shows of this type were of an era in which television was still far more of a theatrical bent. Whereas now it tends to be more cinematic, back in the day it all came from a very proud stage tradition, which has been described as “shouting in the evening”. Thorp perfectly captures the tone and flavour of that style of TV sci-fi acting, and is very reverential, yet also a bit tongue-in-cheek and knowing.
The production itself feels both vibrant and innovative – the second half opens with the audience being involved, as if they’re all attending the Dark Sublime convention – RubyCon One – and being pulled into the action, without all that usual awkwardness where participation is forced upon you. Before the start of the play, as well as during the interval, audio clips are played of classic adverts from the period when Dark Sublime would have supposedly been on, ramping up the nostalgia Warp Factor, and creating the mood perfectly.
It’s the little touches that really take this production over the top – music cues for the Dark Sublime flashback sequences are taken from 1980s Doctor Who; they completely fit the style of the series, and to the casual viewer will just seem to be a splash of extra authentic-sounding audio colour, but to the fans in the audience, it’s a lovely in-joke. In fact, the script is filled with sneaky little Easter eggs, which will take nothing away from the Not We, but add that little extra frisson for those in the know – for example, nuggets of dialogue from Doctor Who, and appropriation of Tom Baker’s colourful description of one script as “whippet shit”.
In fact, the attention to detail overall is – to coin a phrase – sublime. No stone’s left unturned in making the whole experience an immersive and rewarding one. It even goes as far as designing the cover of the programme – deftly done by the brilliant Clayton Hickman – to look like an annual from 1982, the sort of tie-in things you’d get at Christmas, which would come from the presses of World Distributors. There’s even a page of fake BFI blurb, which helps to create the illusion that Dark Sublime once existed, providing credible-sounding biographical detail about the series.
It would be easy to use sci-fi shows and fandom as a cheap source of snide and rather unpleasant comedy – however, in Dark Sublime it’s all approached with a deep and abiding affection, more like the sort of tone that you’d see in something like Galaxy Quest; by the same token, it doesn’t shy away in the slightest from acknowledging that it can have its darker elements, too – there’s clear allusions to Operation Yewtree, with references to a member of the Dark Sublime cast being a predatory pederast, so it doesn’t pull any punches.
Having said that, it does play up the many positive elements of loving TV shows like this, as they can be a gateway into a much larger world beyond the screen, of music and culture, poetry and history. You could say that Dark Sublime wears not just its heart on its sleeve, but also its brain, as it’s a very clever and thoughtful show; it even takes its title from a poem by W.H. Auden, and has a significant meaning to the themes of the play. It’s not often you can get the scriptbook of a theatre show which contains a quote from Shakespeare right next to an extract from the lyrics of the theme to Star Cops. Sheer poetry.
It’s certainly not a show that’s only for a niche crowd, as there’s nothing arcane here to alienate anyone from getting the utmost out of this experience – at its very centre, Dark Sublime is a story of love, heartbreak and regret, but also jubilation and true friendship. It’s wholeheartedly recommended that you beam yourself down to the Trafalgar Studios while you can, and see a worthy and rewarding piece which boldly goes straight for the feels.
Dark Sublime is currently playing at Trafalgar Studios, London, until 3rd August 2019.