Entertainment & Arts

Tutto Bene, Mamma? Play that keeps audience in the dark

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Media captionWatching theatre in the dark

It's not a night out for those who like the lights on. A play that takes place in total darkness premieres in the UK this week.

The audience enters in the dark. The actors are never seen. The ushers wear night vision goggles.

Tutto Bene, Mamma? - a one-act drama adapted by April de Angelis - tells the true story of a mother and her young boy in an apartment in the Italian city of Naples.

The "immersive" experience takes place at The Print Room, a bijou theatre in west London based in a former 1950s warehouse.

During a break in rehearsals, director Ewan Marshall admits he was worried that no actors would be interested in the project.

"The cast remains anonymous, we don't have pictures in the programme - and there's no curtain call."

Part of the reason is that the darkness conceals a clever twist in the way the play has been staged.

From the first day of rehearsals, the cast members - who include Laura Donnelly, Georgia Groome and Phil Wright - have worn black-out goggles.

They navigate around the set with the help of items of furniture and lines of sash-cord taped to the floor.

"They are using are the sort of tactile references that are very familiar to blind or visually-impaired people," points out Marshall, a former artistic director of the Graeae Theatre company, which showcases the work of disabled artists.

But what's the experience like for the audience?

Image caption The play is based on a true story about a single mother (played by Laura Donnelly) and her son

"They sit in darkness from the beginning," explains Marshall. "They are led into the auditorium by ushers using minimal torch lighting.

"There was one member of the audience in the dress rehearsal who was a bit freaked out. We do expect it.

"If somebody does panic they will be led out by the ushers, who have night vision goggles and can see what's going on."

Tutto Bene, Mamma? (Will it be all right, mother?), by Gloria Mina, was a sell-out hit when it was first performed in Milan.

Originally set in Memphis, Tennessee, the English adaptation by April De Angelis moves the action to a working class apartment block in Naples.

Without any visual element, the audio experience forms an essential part of the drama.

Sound designer Benny Nilsen spent several days on the streets of Naples capturing the noises of everyday life for the soundtrack to the play: traffic noise, snatches of conversation and the sound of Italian TV shows through open windows.

"Naples is a city that's never quiet," he says. "The long narrow roads makes the sound travel in unique ways.

"In the play, I do like the sound of Vespas whizzing by - it's a nice reminder of where you are."

While other plays, such as Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy, have experimented with periods of darkness, Tutto Bene, Mamma? puts both its actors and audience through the same experience for the entire duration.

"April has worked on the metaphor of darkness," explains Marshall. "The script is riddled with references to things you see or things you don't."

One thing the producers don't want to see is mobile phones lighting up the auditorium. Audience members are even requested to remove watches that glow in the dark.

"On the first night, a woman sitting next to me had a phone going off in her bag," says Marshall. "I could feel her next to me reaching to take the phone out, so I whispered, 'It's fine - just leave it alone.'"

But the director has noticed how differently people behave in a blackout.

"All these conversations spark up between people who are not connected. It's amazing how intimate people become with the stranger next to them in the dark."

Tutto Bene, Mamma? is at The Print Room, Notting Hill, until 6 July 2013.

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