Michael Portillo - Lights out

Theatre - A power failure illuminates sad urban lives in Charlotte Jones's emotionally charged play,

Come on, admit it. Have you never harboured the dark wish to end the taunts of your ancient mother by despatching her with a kitchen knife? Can you really claim that even in your blackest moments you haven't considered escaping from the sneering contempt of your good-looking wife through a sharp blow to her head with a wooden mallet? Or if you are a parent, sleeplessly worrying about whether your newborn baby is still breathing, have you not contemplated how thoroughly you could terminate your anxiety by ending its tenuous hold on life?

While I hope that such thoughts have never in fact occurred to you, Charlotte Jones's The Dark presents us with three neighbouring families who dredge murderous longings from the blur of their minds into the light of their conscious. When all the homes in the street are pitched into darkness by a power cut, the three households are thrown together and the blackness allows them to escape their inhibitions. Deprived of light and television for less than an hour, they participate in extraordinary events. When the lights come back on, they prefer not to discuss those dark happenings, hoping to forget.

The three families are more or less dysfunctional. Brian (played by Roger Lloyd Pack) and Janet have a teenage son, Josh (Andrew Turner), who never speaks to them. His mother thanklessly leaves his food at the door of his room like a jailer. Inside, the lad who cannot utter a word to his flesh and blood indulges in fantasy chats with strangers on the web. Barnaby and Louisa are, as their names suggest, a middle-class couple. They have bought a big house in a mediocre area. They once loved each other, but they have become strangers, torn apart by the anxiety that their second baby will die, having lost the first to cot death. John next door (Stuart McQuarrie) is despondently gay. He's been beaten up, suspected of being a paedophile. Even his acerbic old mother doubts his innocence. Gangs gather outside and hurl threats, keeping them both in terror.

You are forced to recognise the accuracy of Jones's satire of grinding dullness and sadness in British urban life. The households devour bleak news bulletins reporting a man's mass murder of his family. But they also seek to escape from this harsh world through "reality" TV (Five Celebrities Go to Prison, this week featuring the weathergirl in solitary confinement). None the less, they are so exhausted or bored that they contemplate going to sleep before 8pm. (The action of the play occurs in real time, beginning with curtain-up at 7.30pm and ending before 9pm.) When these unhappy people are eventually thrown together by the calamity of the failed electricity supply, one exclaims excitedly: "It's not everyday you get to meet the neighbours!"

Excellent writing drives this black comedy forward. Jones has won a string of awards with her first four plays, including Humble Boy, which starred Diana Rigg and Simon Russell Beale at the National Theatre. The Dark, Jones's latest offering, could be in prize territory, too. For much of the play, the three households have no interaction, but three separate conversations are cleverly knitted together. A single set presents three different homes, with all the characters on stage at once. Anna Mackmin's direction is strong and the cast is experienced enough to handle the complex timing precisely.

Brid Brennan carries off the role of Janet excellently. She makes us cringe because of her pathetic weakness with the unspeakable Josh, and because she sneers so relentlessly at her husband. When the lights fail, she flirts painfully with the first man to appear. Sian Phillips is equally good and equally dreadful as John's mother, Elsie. She is excruciatingly tactless, a witch who devotes her sedentary life to tormenting her son, playing on his sexual confusion. Her large presence in the house, oozing disapproval, is enough to enforce celibacy upon him.

What occurs in the dark in such a short space of time is thoroughly far-fetched. Presumably, it may all be happening in the characters' imaginations. Louisa's fears for her baby seem vindicated when an intruder enters the darkened house and threatens its life. John finds a 14-year-old boy in his home casually offering him sex. Elsie makes the most of the blackness to come to terms with her son's sexuality. Janet manages to have sex with a stranger - observed by her husband - which emboldens her to bring Josh to heel, and Barnaby rediscovers his desire for his wife. Josh even thanks his mother for preparing his meal - it is indeed all fantasy!

When the juice comes back on, the outlook for each family is perhaps a little brighter. Even so, most of us in the audience could leave the theatre cheered by the thought that some people have sadder lives than we do.

Booking on 0870 060 6624 until 24 April

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The new global elite