Review: Feed at The Vaults

You might think twice about going back online after watching Theatre Témoin’s Feed. You might, but you probably won’t – which is exactly the point this darkly humorous and deeply unsettling show sets out to make. (In fact the company are so sure we’ll all be straight back on Twitter the minute it’s over that they end by encouraging us to use it to spread the word.) We all know the Internet is manipulating us: it’s full of glossy Instagram posts, clickbait headlines, fake news and targeted ads, all focused on getting our money, time, attention and more. We know it, and yet we somehow can’t seem to stop exposing ourselves to it.

Photo credit: Theatre Témoin

Devised by the cast (Jonathan Peck, Louise Lee, Esmee Marsh and Yasmine Yagchi) and directed by Ailin Conant, Feed takes a pretty everyday occurrence to extreme lengths. Journalist Kate uses a photo of a dead Palestinian boy, taken by her girlfriend Clem, on an article that goes viral. Make-up vlogger Mia sees the photo and posts an emotional tribute to the boy, which turns out to be great for her follower count. Soon, egged on by creepy troll-like SEO specialist Tim – who has distinctly un-humanitarian motives of his own – Mia’s going to ever more extreme and gory lengths to keep her followers interested, while Kate is determined to use her new-found platform to further her own causes, whatever the cost. Only “technophobe” Clem is able to see the damage being done, but she’s powerless to stop it – or is she?

Not a show for the faint-hearted (or the weak-stomached), Feed first dares us and then straight out asks us to stop watching, and yet nobody looks away. In the opening scene, Tim demonstrates how A/B testing works through dance – it makes sense at the time, I promise – and we laugh along, not realising what this means: that we’re constantly feeding the machine all the information it needs to keep harming us. By the time that realisation finally dawns, we’re past the point of no return and spiralling rapidly towards the play’s surreal and disturbing climax.

Photo credit: Theatre Témoin

This is even more unsettling given that the clues are all there, long before the chainsaw comes out and everything turns to pandemonium. Live sidebar ads for everything from toothpaste to Christian Aid are slowly tweaked to complement the on-stage action. An emoji-riddled online conversation between Mia and Tim is spoken aloud, exposing the glaring lack of actual words used. And a number of scenes freeze, rewind and repeat several times with small tweaks – almost as if the actors are experimenting to see which version gets the best response…

Theatre Témoin are known for tackling urgent topical issues in their own signature style, and Feed is no exception. It’s a cleverly devised piece that proves just how easily we can be manipulated by invisible forces into saying, doing, or buying things that we might never have thought about before. And it might just make you stop and think about how much time you spend online.

But then again, it might not.

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… 😉

Review: Original Death Rabbit at Jermyn Street Theatre

This week, a teenage girl in the States crashed her car whilst attempting the Bird Box Challenge, prompting the local police to issue a statement begging people not to drive whilst blindfolded. The seventeen-year-old probably thought she would post the video online and bask in the admiration of her followers. Instead, her (unquestionably foolish) actions have made her the target of ridicule and vitriol from total strangers across the globe, the vast majority questioning her right to drive, to reproduce, and even to exist.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

I was reminded of this story whilst watching Rose Heiney’s Original Death Rabbit, directed by Hannah Joss, in which a young woman (Kimberley Nixon) inadvertently becomes an Internet meme – the Death Rabbit – after being photographed in the background of a child’s funeral procession wearing a pink bunny onesie. Seeking an escape from her own insecurities and the trauma of her father’s recently diagnosed schizophrenia, she throws herself headlong into the world of the Original Death Rabbit, eventually becoming so consumed by her online persona that she begins to lose any sense of her real identity. Now, on the eve of her 32nd birthday, she looks back over her decade of Internet “fame” and reflects on how it’s affected her life, relationships and mental health. More importantly, she sets out to do what the Internet so often fails to do – provide context to explain how she’s ended up where she is.

Kimberley Nixon gives an outstanding performance, commanding our attention and sympathy throughout as she engagingly delivers Rose Heiney’s insightful and witty script. For someone like the Original Death Rabbit, who’s always judged herself on how others perceive her (she was once wracked with guilt after being told by a friend that her favourite poet Philip Larkin was a racist and misogynist, and that by liking him she was aligning herself with his views) the Internet was always going to be a dangerous place, and her obsessive reaction to it is inevitable but also very relatable – whether or not we like to admit it. Anyone who’s ever been active on social media knows the little thrill of seeing a post liked or shared, and the sense of rejection – or worse – when something we’ve said or done online fails to land as we intended. The Original Death Rabbit’s need to be validated by the approval of strangers might be extreme, but it’s also very understandable.

But that’s not all we can relate to. The minute I walked in and saw Louie Whitemore’s set – a cluttered, neglected living room in which the only pristine items are the Richard Curtis movie posters adorning the walls – I had a feeling the play was going to be right up my street, and I wasn’t wrong. The Original Death Rabbit might be flawed but she’s not unlikeable, and our 90 minutes with her are easily as entertaining as they are disturbing. She has a passionate – bordering on aggressive – love for Richard Curtis movies, which gets some of the biggest laughs of the night, along with her sardonic impressions of her whiney younger sister and patronising leftie friend. And her story, though dark, is also enjoyably quirky (let’s be honest, anything involving a pink bunny suit would struggle to be too deadly serious).

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Funny, sad, brilliantly performed and with a cautionary message that feels more necessary by the day, Original Death Rabbit kicks off Jermyn Street Theatre’s 25th anniversary year in triumphant style. Highly recommended.

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… 😉

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… 😉