Direct marketing is an industry we all know exists, and which we probably all realise is not a Good Thing – and yet it continues to thrive. Andrew Maddock’s new play Data, part of the Illuminate Festival at New Wimbledon Studio, aims to expose a little about how the system works, and maybe make us think twice about the many ways we willingly offer up our personal details every day.
We all know the direct marketing industry is a bit shady, but it’s also easy to dismiss as a minor irritation that doesn’t really hurt anyone. And, let’s face it, it’s not the most glamorous subject in the world. So, like all the most successful marketing campaigns, Data appeals to our emotional side in order to get the message across.
Directed by Phil Croft, three characters reveal different aspects of the industry – each beginning within their own carefully defined space before spilling out as their stories begin to interconnect. At the business end, where data is bought and sold, are professionals like Gaz and Rachel, whose job is first to get us to part with our data, and then to use it against us. The play, presented in a poetic style, manages to explain this in relatively simple terms and in a way that keeps the subject interesting, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that it’s a hugely complex system with a multitude of loopholes.
At the other end of the story are those most at risk from Gaz and Rachel’s underhand tactics – like Bev, a lonely, confused old lady who doesn’t even remember what happened yesterday, let alone understand what TPS stands for.
Not entirely surprisingly, this is very much a story of good versus evil – and just to make sure we’re in no doubt, there’s a parallel drawn more than once between dealing in data and dealing in drugs. (“I just want leads… I think them about them all the time,” is a repeated refrain.) Gaz (Sam Ducane) is an utterly despicable character, motivated solely by money and ambition, who clearly sold his soul to the devil a long time ago, while Bev (Jean Apps) is a victim in every possible way: she’s a widow, her granddaughter wants little to do with her, her son’s moved to Australia in unpleasant circumstances; even her dog’s dead. If this were a Comic Relief video, Jean Apps’ performance would have us all reaching for our phones.
Between these two extremes – and saving the play from becoming too clean-cut – lies Rachel (Helena Doughty), with an intriguing storyline, and, it seems, at least traces of a conscience. Even as she plans her marketing campaigns for maximum emotional impact on strangers, she’s concerned for her nan’s wellbeing at the hands of other marketers, and fails to see that she herself has been manipulated by Gaz into handing over information of a different but no less powerful kind. As the one character who we don’t totally love or loathe, it would be great to see Rachel’s story developed further, particularly the relationship between what happened in her past and her attitude towards her work. Which is not to say Gaz and Bev’s stories aren’t interesting; it’s just that Rachel feels like the seesaw that could tip the balance, for better or worse.
Data certainly succeeds in provoking an emotional response, although it perhaps lacks a clearly defined call to action. The play makes us think about where our own data goes, and explains how we can protect ourselves through services like TPS (though even these, we’re told, are possible to get around). But there’s a wider problem here, which the play does a great job of educating us about – and then leaves us wondering, what can be done?