(seen online at the afternoon performance on 16th January 2021).
Necessity puts a theatre musical about life online exclusively, well, online. Created and performed by Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke, this first ever presentation of their work written in lockdown is streamed live from the Little Theatre at Southwark Playhouse.
Suiting well the style of the show, mixing live performance with Matt Powell’s video design allows the audience to watch everything on a single screen rather than rely on the back wall projections live theatre would demand.
Every word is drawn as spoken from online sources including Twitter, Instagram, You Tube and Facebook, with the theme taken mostly from the latter two platforms. Spoken or sung, the authors venture into the woods of the worldwide web in search of what makes it tick (tok).
This is achieved by contrasting those who create content with those who provide the means. The first is represented by online You Tube streams from teenage influencers Millie (Forristal) and Z (Clarke). The second is a look at the world of Facebook through the eyes of its creator Mark Zuckerberg, wife Priscilla Chan and those who work at the lowest level of the organisation.
We start (and end) with the intelligent observation that we all feel a little lonely, and that the right influencer will find family and friends bring in more friends and eventually create a network around their star. Millie offers vacuous advice on how to grow a channel, Z just wants attention and potentially connection. How they develop within themselves and with their audience forms one half of the main construct.
The other concerns Facebook. Interspersed extracts from a US Congressional Inquiry into how it operates sees Zuckerberg confronted with questions he would rather not answer. Clarke’s impersonation wilts under Forristal’s rather exaggerated interrogators.
Slightly more successful is her Chan impression when glimpsing their home lives. There’s a sickening moment when she promises to remove from the world things that harm children, before husband and wife harmonise on everything being better in the future.
Undermining their dream are reports from two graduates who felt lucky to “get on the corporate ladder” with Facebook, but find grotty working conditions and exposure on a daily basis to trauma-inducing material while working as moderators. The 9 minutes counselling / crying on fire escape they receive are scant compensation and go unnoticed by the founders.
The final minutes of the show are the most intelligent. Weak impersonations of senior citizens diminish little the positive note that even the elderly can use technology. Without the egotism of the young, they can send a boat on an ocean to spread love.
This dignified simpler yearning for connection contrasts to good effect with the superficial work of the teens - technologically astute but considerably less emotionally mature.
There’s work to be done to meld characters with structure. Neither influencer is defined quickly enough with an explanation of exactly what one is, nor is there a settled moment where they can express satisfaction with what they do and justify their continuation of it. This leaves the show without a turning-point to reference before the decline begins.
There is also no attempt to link inexorably Zuckerberg with the pair, and a diversion into “Tik Tok” may be current but seems superfluous when there is a need to enlarge existing characters and ideas to strengthen their impact.
Still, this holds up remarkably well against similar technology driven musicals as “Be More Chill,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Loserville.” It has the advantage of some strong music (watch this video of 'Rise and Conquer' here) and a willingness to ask awkward questions, testing the answers rather than just using media as a convenient plot driver.
This is the first time the show has been run in its entirety. For a first attempt, it demonstrates potential as a brave attempt to find depth in a shallow virtual world.
An encore stream of 'Public Domain' will be available to view from Tuesday 19th to Sunday 24th January 2021 with this link: www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/public-domain/
Photo credit: The Other Richard. Used by kind permission.