The BT studio was pleasingly full as I took my seat on a gloomy Tuesday evening. I was struck immediately by the set dressing, a convincingly sterile blue-lit waiting room with familiar patronising posters and flowers that were too perfect to be real. There is a remarkable amount of creativity coming of out New College at the moment, and the fact that Lara Marks and her team cast two freshers from the college, making their debuts on the Oxford drama scene, is something we should continue to encourage.
The play is structurally episodic and spans a considerable amount of time, and an especially long time for characters for whom every moment matters. Tom (Chris Dodsworth) and Jenny (Charithra Chandran) meet in the waiting room. Chandran immediately locks eyes on a rare sight: a person her age also waiting for radiation therapy. The relationship progresses absurdly quickly – something that is just about explained by the characters’ desire to make the most of the time they have left – with the pair married within what feels like the first ten minutes of their meeting.
In light of the unnatural pace of the writing, the actors make a great stab at an incredibly difficult gig. There appears a good level of trust on stage, though I wish Marks had spent more time exploring the intimacies of their relationship, therefore better managing their transition from awkward teenage fumbling to intense love. The audience seemed entirely comprised of people who knew both players, and credit is due to them for coping well with a disappointing amount of snickering in some of the tenderer moments. I was touched by Dodsworth’s opening naivety – Chandran has had only two weeks more treatment than him and yet her contrasting opening confidence suggested how quickly one can adapt to adversity.
The voice of the doctor (Hugh Tappin) was perfectly judged, but I was incredulous at some of his lines, which smacked of a flippant and dry sense of humour, far from professional empathy and credible bedside manner. This brings me to my main issues, which lie with the play itself. The text feels unrealistic from start to finish, moves too quickly and its tone never settles. The characters feel a lot younger at some points, and while a certain level of goofiness is endearing this does not leave the pair any wriggle room for the more serious sections. I was particularly shocked by Jenny’s description of her favourite film, ‘Alien’, described as a monster growing inside you that threatens to rip you apart. Far from ironic, this image is just too raw to be sensitive.
Ultimately, there is little the production can do about the text, and what I saw was all in all a good effort at very challenging subject matter, with moments when I could imagine real potential in Chandran and Dodsworth’s relationship. The midway set change was a bold colour statement and worked well, but I would have liked them to have had the confidence to do it in character rather than apologising with blackouts. Dying Light is worth a visit for the opportunity to watch two people tackle a difficult and flawed script, with a sense of charm and understanding that they’re in this together, both as actors and as patients.