Manchester Theatre Awards

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Dark Satanic (The Greater Manchester Fringe Festival)

Rob Johnston
Breathe Out Theatre
The Kings Arms, Salford
13 July 2017 to 14 July 2017

Rob Johnston’s Dark Satanic examines the industrial revolution from the viewpoint of someone not wanting to be involved in the event but forced to change to accommodate the transformation in society. 

Helen (sole performer Emma Romy-Jones) is a farmworker, and she and her husband have agreed that he will seek employment in the Manchester metropolis while she will work their farm and ensure that it does not fall into disrepair. Yet the impact of industrialisation extends to the small village where Helen’s farm is based. She finds it difficult to retain labourers and is increasingly compelled to learn skills which previously have been exercised only by men. The pollution caused by the factories is generating dark clouds that shade the farm crops from much-needed sun. When Helen’s husband fails to return home on the agreed date, she is forced to travel into the belly of the beast to find him. 

Johnston’s script is ambitious and somewhat depressing. It is clear that Helen, her lifestyle and community are destined for extinction. Yet the point is made that workers owning their own farmland were, briefly, in a position to which others would aspire as their land freed them from having to enter into servitude to the ruling class. Helen’s satisfaction at her relative freedom helps draw out the full impact of the change that is on the way. 

Emma Romy-Jones plays Helen as a contradictory figure. She thrives on tackling the challenges that arise from having to run the farm alone and is perceptive enough to see the implications of the changes all around for her marriage and the future of her community. Yet Helen is stubborn and will change only in a way that suits her, and, although she surely knows the farm is likely to fail, is unwilling to consider leaving and moving to the city. In the style of classic tragic characters, Romy-Jones gives Helen a fatal flaw – pride. 

Although Dark Satanic is essentially a monologue, it is far from static. Excellent use is made of dramatic sound and lighting effects to reproduce the cacophony of the factories and the ominous, sunless skies. 

The running time of the play is short, and there is a feeling that sustaining such a resolutely grim play for much longer would be difficult. Dark Satanic is very well written and performed, but the overall sense of defeat that hangs over the play does not make it easy to watch.

Reviewer: David Cunningham