The premise behind Jonathan Lichtenstein’s Darkness initially reads a little uncomfortably. A tale of an immigrant moving to clear windblown trees in the welsh countryside, the program outlining a story about forbidden love and religious extremism; the subject matter is at once controversial and yet wearisomely familiar after ten years of media obsession with the much abused subject of Islamic fundamentalism. One could be forgiven for thinking that one pretty much has the story pinned down in their minds before curtain up, predicting Romeo and Juliet spliced with White Teeth with perhaps the loosest impression of Wuthering Heights hovering somewhere far off in the distance.

Unfortunately this would be doing Lichtenstein’s acute cultural observations a great disservice. Darkness playfully deconstructs our assumptions about faith and the dangers of religious literalism. Only twenty years on from the cooling down of the conflict in Northern Ireland, our perspective of the harsher edge of Western faith has dulled considerably; the idea of violence committed in the name of Christianity seems almost anachronistic in the modern United Kingdom. Lichtenstein uses this context to analyse our perspective of religious extremism; his story of an extremely orthodox Christian family and the atheistic migrant worker who finds that love pulls him into confrontation with violent fundamentalism is one that has awesome potential.

In its current form as a staged reading, Lichtenstein’s play has only minimal dressing. The actors sit on a row of chairs, stepping forward to deliver their lines and loosely acting out the stage direction being read by the play’s narrator. Delineating the edge of the performance area are an axe, a bucket, a knife and a chainsaw, the key props of the performance, which generate a sense of threat to the proceedings, each item carrying an explicit aggression to them and each referring to or coming to be used in an act of violence. It is an incredibly effective set up for such a claustrophobic performance, one that is wonderfully suggestive of the isolation of the Welsh countryside.

David Tarkenter as George makes for incredibly compulsive viewing. He expertly handles the character, navigating the mess of ignorant views, familial bickering and sincere religious devotion with a deftness of touch that never oversteps the mark. His ability to balance George’s brutal demeanour with Lichtenstein’s ironic conversational dressing, easily switching from discussions of religious fervour to his disdain for salt and vinegar crisps, makes his character threatening and yet incredibly believable. Kieran Knowles is perhaps underused as Yan; his delivery of the Croatian’s sexually precocious but affable personality isn’t quite given the stage time it deserves as the contrast between his areligious morality and George and Tony’s blinkered devotion offer the real tension of the piece.

All round the characterisation in Darkness is generally convincing. Emma Jane Connell as Caitlyn and Barbara Peirson as Carol are both pitched perfectly, offering a saner counterbalance to the men of the family. The crow-shooting, slickly sinister Tony, played by Jamie Wallwork, is utterly brutal and the actor nicely handles the dark undertones of the character’s relationship with his sister. Joshua Hayes’s Dan is also nicely executed, his portrayal of the young son alienated by his family’s extreme beliefs working well amongst such extreme characters. It is the character of Ollie where the play is perhaps a little less surefooted; his return admittedly serves to bring a brutal secret to the surface but the fact that he has merely come to be a proxy rather than antithesis of his father’s religious fundamentalism rather weakens George’s strong position. Given the fact that Yan, George and Tony offer such a well defined triumvirate it has to be asked whether Lichtenstein needs Ollie to ramp up the dramatic tension or whether he already has sufficient resources in his incredibly rich male leads.

All in all Lichtenstein’s writing is incredibly well executed. His dialogue rarely places a foot wrong and it is clear that a great deal of work has gone into both the development of his story and characters. However this does not mean that this performance is entirely without failings. For a play so convincingly set up and so beautifully scripted I did find that the ending left me feeling somewhat conflicted; motivations that ring so true throughout the play seem to slip slightly in the last few scenes and the tension that has been boiling up throughout the play is allowed to dissipate slightly. Ultimately George’s messianic delusions are left unchallenged; whilst the bulk of his family step away and refuse to play a part in his immoral actions there is still insufficient confrontation for such a strong character to react off. This feels like a missed opportunity for a truly meaningful conclusion. Lichtenstein has the chance to make some truly powerful statements about the conflict between atheistic liberalism and the hard-edged will of the religious right but unfortunately pulls punches when a couple of timely jabs could truly hit home.

But it really isn’t necessary to end this review on a negative when there is so much positive ground to choose from. Disregarding the politics of the situation for a moment, Lichtenstein has managed to do what many a playwright fails to: creating a world that falls perfectly between the beautiful and the flawed. With some truly poetic language and wonderful set pieces this performance is another milestone on the way toward the creation of an absolutely wonderful piece of theatre.

 Josh Russell