By Catherine Kirkham-Sandy
Returning from a eating disorder clinic, Dani (Sophie Lorraine Parkin) is aimless, hating her school and home life with equal measure, (perhaps a leaf out of The Silver Linings Playbook?) . She starts a tepid sexual relationship online with a well-meaning but charmless basement-dweller, Lewis (Ed Foster). Wanting to walk on the wild side, she starts an unconventional friendship with another man she met online: Tim. Tim was a teacher. Tim loves literature and baking. Tim is affectionate, encourages her to spread her wings; and the friendship culminates in dancing and a kiss in Act Two, with jokes of marriage. Tim is a reforming paedophile. As the production team wisely warned the audience before the play commenced (paedophilia, sexual content, eating disorders, purging) and implied in the ominously poker-faced poster: this is not a sweet story. The emphasis is on syndrome, not on sugar.
While all four actors give strong performances, special commendation goes to Ellie Ward and Will Robinson, as Dani’s mother Jan and Tim respectively. The use of awkward pauses highlights almost painfully the dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter and all that both leave unsaid. Ward possesses excellent timing that allows much of the play’s humour to shine through while still conveying the ineptitude and pitiful self-delusion of her character. She is aided in this by Costume (Lena Tondello) whose use of both chunky knits and bright colours call attention to Jan’s immaturity through her domestic clothing. The flashes of bright colour in Dani’s own costume create a visual connection between the two: both are wilfully blind to the sexual behaviour of the men they care about.
There is a touch of the camp in Robinson’s performance, but used to subtle effect, fully realising his character through both line delivery and physicality. Robinson balances the humour of Tim’s quaint, affable demeanour (“It’s not dad rock. It’s classic rock with acoustic roots!”) with a dissonance: something an audience cannot quite put a finger on. How much sincerity is there in his expressions of anguish? Does he seek solace in his meetings with Dani, or someone to bolster his sense of victimhood? Just as Lewis deludes himself by thinking Dani is genuinely attracted to him, is Tim deluding himself, Humbert Humbert-style, by presenting himself as the greatest victim of his own disorder? His fetishizing of a mixed-race underage neighbour certainly suggests this; and Ashley Milne’s direction helps leave these questions open and rawThe first act of the play is mostly build-up, including a frankly bizarre detour on the subject of Pilates (the point of that scene? Unclear) culminating in the inevitable breakdown of communication between Jan and Dani. This could have posed a problem of pacing, but through humour, engaging performances and prompt scene change, audience interest was maintained, showing the strength of the production team. The transitions are deft, especially by shifting scene from Lewis’ bedroom to Dani’s simply by reversing the duvet cover.
The atmosphere of the play is one of foreboding; and every aspect of the production values contributes towards this. The ones and zeroes of binary code lurk in white paint on the walls, yet they are illuminated by fairy lights. The stark cold white of projected computer screens contrasts with the warmer costume colours as human and inhuman collide. Loud static and discordant computer error noises set the audience’s teeth on edge, while gentler music is used to lull the audience into feelings that are almost heartwarming, just before the most harrowing scenes of the play occur. The play’s poster and backdrop are, I would argue, slightly misleading, suggesting the internet plays a more dominant role in the story than it actually does. Dani may have met Lewis and Tim online, but the chief conflict of the play occurs in person. Seeking candour through the internet is just one facet of Dani’s impulsive behaviour, but not the most important. Yet the dissonant ambience created by the shadow the computer casts over the production values makes up for this; and the production team have worked effectively together to bring the nuance of this horror story to life in all its amusing, painful, terrifying glory.