To create a piece of theatre which deals with limited space and very few cast members, is always going to be a risky business. There is a great deal of pressure on the actors for a start, and as a director one must have considerable faith in the ability of one’s cast to carry the play forward, not to mention the requirement for a convincing and well-designated script.
James Christopher’s debut piece of theatre Charlie’s Dark Angel does just so, placing four characters within a close and constricted environment, to great effect. Staged within the intimate theatre of The Garage, Christopher offers his audience a powerfully rich drama dealing with the psychological complexities invoked by childhood trauma, and denial of the past.
The story begins with a ‘chance’ encounter between two old friends from boarding school, many years down the line; Eric is a married man living out in the English countryside, making his wage by restoring old picture frames. Charlie is rather more mysterious, or at least seemingly so: restless, constantly on the move, without any specific sense of place. His identity somehow seems firmly rooted in his past, lingering amongst a web of confused memory.
Perhaps however, it is Eric’s identity which should appear more dubious. As the layers are gradually peeled back, we notice Eric sink further into a state of anonymity, provoked by the mysterious arrival of Charlie and his Ukrainian girlfriend, Ella.
The mood of the play is aggravated further by the intensity of the staging, which often feels very enclosed; there is never much space between one character and the next, giving a sense of unfathomed boundaries.
Talking about the inspiration behind the production, James Christopher says: “I’ve always been fascinated by stories that turn on chance encounters and strange coincidences. Does anything ever happen in theatre, or on film, by chance? I doubt it. The idea that fate has it in for us whatever we decide is of course a staple of film noir and Greek tragedy, so why not fuse the two?”
A particular allusion we find running throughout this play is to Dominik Moll’s 2000 film Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien (known in English as Harry, He’s Here to Help) which deals avidly with the unsettling dimensions of relationships and the mental complexity underlying such ties.
However, transforming such an iconic film to the stage was never going to be an easy feat. Yet, Christopher manages to create an atmosphere which surpasses anything manageable on the big screen. Christopher says this was particularly down to the great performances of his cast members: “I was extremely lucky in my cast who, despite playing characters considerably older in years, made that challenge an irrelevance.”
Superbly performed throughout, the cast certainly allow the story to charge forward towards its splendid result. Tom O’Sullivan’s performance as Charlie Sellars is deeply haunting, brazen and composed throughout. Susie Martin also gives a significant performance as Ella, creating vibrant marks, as if on a canvas, resisting (perhaps somewhat unsuccessfully) against the dominant ties of Charlie. Charlie Field and Helena Nattrass also maintain a wonderfully charged dynamic as the wedded couple Eric and Susan Thorne.
From shades of black comedy to moments of gripping suspense, let’s hope that Charlie’s Dark Angel makes it back to the stage for the enjoyment of a wider audience.