Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club’s A Sudden Burst of Blinding Light is structured and effectively performed like a cosmic nightmare. Two contestants on a bizarre game show, Jude (Maya Achan) and Leon (Malcolm Ebose), are tormented and ridiculed by bubbly but sadistic show hosts and forced to explore their own shame and pain through reenactments and flashbacks of previous traumas. The stuff of nightmares. The question the show and its artistic choices raise most consistently is: whose nightmare?
The game show format can be entertaining for a live play, but the script of A Sudden Burst of Blinding Light, written by Ben Maier, does not use the format very well, as frequent flashbacks, monologues, and freeze-frame asides not only jar the audience but muddy the point of the play as a whole. Is this a comedy? A tragicomedy? A through-and-through parody/satire of the flippancy and crass positivity we employ when discussing mental illness? I’m not sure we ever find out.
The contestants, at least, are effectively characterised. The melancholy Ebose conceals within the role of Leon and the mousiness Achan hardwires into Jude are well developed and rehearsed. The show hosts, Terry (Ed Paget) and Fizz (Charlotte Cromie), lean more towards slapstick insanity, but as unpredictable sadists, they certainly remain in character the whole way through. However, its hard to shake the sense that the whole tone of the piece is off somehow, from the half-hearted and half-delivered punchlines to the rushed backstories given to what could have been interesting characters.
Aesthetically, the show is colourful, but inconsistent and dizzying. Though the costumes are appropriately tailored to the wearer’s characteristics, and the lighting, designed by Avi Pluskoska, flashes and twirls well (most of the time), this play seems to have skipped any consideration of stage geography and audience comprehension. Following where and when the actions and flashbacks are taking place is near impossible, and the production team could have benefited from designing more specific regions of the stage and uses of lighting to differentiate between the game show environment and the myriad other settings where scenes take place.
There is something to be said for layering truly tragic revelations with comedic flippancy. At times, the striking cruelty that marmalade-suited host Terry (played at breakneck speed by Paget) hurls at timid Jude and humble Leon begins to recall the uncaring approach we can all sometimes take to mental illness and other people’s serious issues in general. The whirlwind incomprehensibility of the game show begins to mirror what a world may look like to someone with debilitating trauma like the contestants. To their credit, the actors do a fine job of selling this nightmarish tone. Paget’s manic voice and Cromie’s devilish mannerisms as Fizz convince the spectator that what they are seeing is crass and cruel indeed, and these performances are commendably earnest.
The show comes into its own more successfully around the second half, as the hosts themselves show signs of trauma and characterisation, the pain is spread around, and we get to sees signs of weakness in the tormentors. The implications that Terry and Fizz’s cruelty stems from their own self-hatred is momentarily interesting, yet these moments are too quickly presented and discarded to be of any note. And then there’s the highly questionable entrance of a ludicrously costumed crooner named Frankie Valium, (ha), played by Harry Burke, who does a somewhat charming ditty, then fails to project enough for any of his lines to be understood, returning for one late monologue about a bear attack that just halts any trajectory the play had going for it. This scene in particular is frustratingly unnecessary, ill-advised, and poorly written, that any hope of coherence is blown away completely.
All that said, commendable moments shined through. Malcolm Ebose, playing Leon, is a highlight; he manages to portray his inner anguish with a striking tone of beauty. Whenever he does, however, A Sudden Burst of Blinding Light shows its hand by quickly cutting back to crass, cold, cheap laughs that end up turning the tasteless nightmare on the paying audience more than anyone. Whatever director Carine Valarché had in mind, this reviewer cannot recommend it. Game over.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller