First published in The Times, Thursday August 15 2019
This ensemble piece from the National Youth Theatre, which addresses burning issues of social networking and misappropriation of data, began life as a workshop participated in by 30 members of the company. Its origins can be seen in the show’s freewheeling structure and multiple narrative threads, but the playwright Tatty Hennessy has done an admirable job of focusing these conversations and experiences into a chewy, compelling production.
A courtroom “trial” of the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, in which the audience is the jury, frames the drama. A volunteer takes on the role of Zuck, and the star witness for the prosecution is Will Stewart’s brash whistleblower.
Pic: HELEN MURRAY
Stewart’s insights are presented, variously, as a TED Talk beginner’s guide to social networks and a glittery magic show, in which he demonstrates in queasily entertaining ways the sheer amount tech companies know about users of social media, and how that information has been redeployed in the dark art of targeted political advertising. The American whistle-blower’s quip that the Brits in the audience probably think we’re too sensible to be taken in by such manoeuvres is met with a ripple of nervous laughter.
The show’s interactive conceit (this is one of the few Fringe shows in which the audience members are asked to leave their phones on) might seem rather thin and gimmicky on its own, but Hennessy’s script weaves together various human stories, tied together by themes of communication, information sharing and surveillance. Among the dramatis personae are a well-meaning Labour candidate (Tiajna Izekor), who is tempted into exploiting social media platforms to boost her flagging campaign, teenagers embarking on an anonymous online romance and a young female victim of revenge porn.
Paul Roseby’s production is busy and fast-paced; at times, the small stage at Underbelly struggles to contain an ensemble of 13 players. As a “trial” the evidence seems strongly weighted against the defendant, but the show does concede the addictive nature of reciprocal online relationships. A firm jury verdict of “off with his head” is followed by the usual flurry of audience members checking their phones as we file out of the venue.