Review: BLUSH at Soho Theatre

We’ve all felt that flush of shame when someone tags us in a terrible photo on Facebook, or we’ve tweeted something and instantly wished we could take it back. But what if it was far worse than an embarrassing selfie or misjudged comment? Sharing isn’t always caring, as we’re about to discover in Charlotte Josephine’s BLUSH, an intense, exhausting and impassioned two-hander.

Directed by Ed Stambollouian, BLUSH delves into the world of social media, with all its practical, social and psychological side effects. We now live in a world where anything we do at any time can be made public, whether by our choice or not. At the same time that world provides sufficient anonymity for people to behave in a way they almost certainly wouldn’t in real life: make vile comments on a video of a teenager that her boyfriend posted as a joke; make public naked selfies that a young woman sent privately through a dating app (and then use them to blackmail her into sending more); make rape threats against a girl on Twitter because she turned down the advances of a man they don’t even know.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

These are some of the stories told by the three women and two men played by Charlotte Josephine and Daniel Foxsmith in BLUSH; at first in an orderly fashion, taking it in turns to step up and tell their story, the show becomes increasingly frantic and chaotic as it builds to a climax, leaving both actors out of breath and dripping with sweat, and the audience feeling we’ve gone through it all with them.

The script is descriptive and at times verging on poetic (opening with a particularly graphic picture involving 30,000 pairs of eyeballs) without ever feeling forced or inauthentic. And the set is literally that – a film set, surrounded by lights and cameras, with a circular red carpet at the centre that could be interpreted in several ways: the “stage” of a TED speaker trying to reach out to an audience; the record button on a camera; the embarrassed blush of the show’s title; or maybe just a big stop sign.

The presence of a male and female voice means we also get to explore the fascinating and distressing gender imbalance at play. A young male professional on a high-profile business trip gets drunk and tweets about a girl who turned him down, unleashing a torrent of hatred – against her. In response he gets a slap on the wrist and is whisked back home on the next flight. Simultaneously, a young woman whose boyfriend has ghosted her posts explicit images and videos of him on the Internet – but the instant backlash is against her, not him.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

The play makes no attempt to justify this behaviour on either side, or to suggest answers (though there is a pointed comment at one stage about the ineffectiveness of the law on revenge porn); instead it focuses on making us aware of the dangers lurking and the countless ways both we and those around us can be affected by our widespread need for validation. Importantly, though, BLUSH doesn’t indulge in victim blaming; quite the opposite – it goes out of its way to be clear that the fault lies squarely with those who feel the need to take advantage of others’ vulnerability.

Hard-hitting, complex and hugely topical, at a little over an hour BLUSH feels both mercifully short and not long enough – and certainly makes you think twice about reaching for your phone the moment it’s over.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Daniel Foxsmith, BLUSH

In April 2015, legislation was passed that made revenge pornography – sharing a private sexual photo or film of someone without their consent – a criminal act. This became the catalyst for BLUSH from Snuff Box Theatre, which tells five stories about image-based sexual abuse, and went on to an award-winning run in Edinburgh. Next month the play will transfer to Soho Theatre, before embarking on a national tour.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

“It’s a bit of a bloody rollercoaster!” says Daniel Foxsmith, who appears in BLUSH alongside writer Charlotte Josephine. “It’s a blisteringly beautiful look at how we behave online, the rules we have or haven’t made for ourselves on there, a look at gender, our modern attitude to sex, promiscuity, sex education, the shame associated with sex and how our understanding of ourselves is shaping technology now.”

Described as “a slap in the face and a call to arms”, BLUSH fearlessly tackles a difficult subject, and encourages its audience to do the same. “We need to look at all of the above with both eyes wide open,” says Daniel, “so if we can get audiences to confront some ‘digital gremlins’ that are now firmly part of our online culture that’d be great. Beyond that, hopefully they’re engaged, entertained and there’s space for reflection and empathy after the show.”

BLUSH is the third play from Charlotte Josephine, who’s co-founder of Snuff Box Theatre along with Daniel and Bryony Shanahan. The show’s been in development since 2015: “After a lot of research by Charlotte Josephine, the piece, as far as I’m aware, found its current form early on in December 2015 after some research and development at Camden People’s Theatre, where Bryony Shanahan floated the idea of the five voices being played by two performers,” explains Daniel.

“It’s grown again from there; with director Edward Stambollouian making his deft mark on it on its way to Edinburgh last summer. I think now, post-Edinburgh, the show’s current form is a robust and direct piece of storytelling, which has been reflected in some lovely thoughts from reviewers and – most importantly – audiences alike, with Charlotte winning a Stage Award for Acting Excellence whilst sweating away in the depths of Underbelly!”

Daniel believes that research is the key to BLUSH‘s success. “I think the amount carried out before, during and beyond the writing of the show makes the content well thought-out and crucially well balanced. This isn’t a two-dimensional ear bashing for a particular section of society. Also Ed’s fine touch and James’s design have created a beautifully intense and sparse atmosphere for the stories to unfold.”

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Though the play was inspired by the concept of revenge porn, the true focus of the work is shame, which allows the show to speak to a much broader audience. “I’d say the show speaks to wider themes,” says Daniel. “It’s not just about digital sexual abuse. All of the things I mentioned in summing up the show are universal themes that I’d hazard to say everyone has brushed up against in one way or another at some point.”

After its run at Soho, BLUSH goes on tour throughout the summer around the UK. “I think touring outside of London is really important, but it feels especially relevant for BLUSH, because it can be harder to escape the digital pillory that online shaming can sometimes become in communities in smaller towns and cities.”

Daniel, Charlotte and Bryony founded Snuff Box in 2011 after graduating, inspired by one simple goal: “We wanted to work!” says Daniel. “The three of us trained as performers on the East 15 CT course, and had stories to tell by the end of it. No-one was waiting for us to tell them, so forming Snuff Box was a way for us to get our work made. With the addition of Jake Orr driving us on as producer, the team is aiming to keep telling stories that are full of heart and grit, in ways that provoke today’s audience.”

BLUSH is at Soho Theatre from 16th May-3rd June, then on tour until 24th June.