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NSFW explodes onto the Royal Court stage with the force of a firework. Split between a lads’ mag (Doghouse) and a women’s glossy (Electra), this is a play about gender in the cut-throat, dying world of print journalism.
Lucy Kirkwood’s Royal Court debut is impressive. By turns hilarious, ridiculous and amoral, Kirkwood’s dialogue is satisfyingly witty and deliciously incisive. The acronymic title refers to “not safe (or suitable) for work”. For those in the dark (as I was – thanks, footnoted title), this phrase is used to describe “online material which the viewer may not want to be seen accessing in a public or formal setting.” NSFW explores controversial material and decisions in the workplace.
From the off, this is a play about gender. Without being hackneyed or didactic, Kirkwood presents us with a range of deeply unsettling views of women or, more specifically, women’s bodies. She makes liberal use of gender stereotypes in the text, and designer Tom Pye complements this by cluttering the shelves of the Doghouse office with kitsch, sexual objects (a pouting-lipped phone, a corsetted female torso, etc). Aidan, editor of Doghouse, attempts to inspire his staff: “Let’s really live in the spaces between the boobs, yeah?” Electra editor Miranda publishes articles about ‘anti-wrinkle bras’. Even the first half’s central conflict revolves around a controversial pair of tits.
However, this is not just a show about gender. Kirkwood packs a great deal into the 85 minutes, and her characters, their voices and opinions are brilliantly familiar. Charlotte (Esther Smith) balances working at Doghouse with attending a “women’s group” (mysteriously unexplained). Essentially, she has compromised her morals for her career. Her defence will be all too familiar to 20-somethings in the Royal Court audience: “I did three years of unpaid work placements and internships before I came here and that’s fucking shit. Slave labour. Then I came here, which, yeah, it’s not like my dream or anything but it’s on my CV and I can pay my rent and yeah.”
By and large, NSFW boasts a strong cast, although the first ten minutes are a little undercooked and the younger actors take a while to warm up. I have no doubt this will vanish once the run is properly underway. Julian Barratt’s Aidan stands out – Barratt gives a finely judged performance: lean, charismatic and care-worn. I was surprised by how much I came away liking Aidan. On paper, he could be lecherous, immoral, and misogynistic but Barratt brings a wonderful ambivalence to the role and makes Aidan very human.
NSFW is by no means a flawless show. Miranda (Janie Dee), editor of Electra, is at times too pantomime and Cruella de Villian to be quite credible. Her character is both written and performed with a plastic, arch quality, and she lacks Aidan’s warmth. However, she brings a certain cruelty to the piece, and the ending is much darker for her presence. Overall, Simon Godwin has created an immensely satisfying show – deliciously slick, outrageous and asking important questions without dictating the answers.
NSFW is electric – and intoxicating. I have a feeling it is going to be a hit. There was a palpable atmosphere of this in the audience – and it isn’t every press night that gives an encore.
NSFW runs at the Royal Court Theatre in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 24th November. For more information and tickets, please visit the Royal Court website: www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/NSFW
I SAW IT
Arriving in Berlin on the early flight on a blisteringly cold January morning. Grey and cold and empty. Too tired to countenance much. Coming upon the beautiful colours of this amphitheatre behind Markt Mauerplatz in East Berlin. Having a go on the swing.
Max Herbert is a painter. He is currently working on PROJECT PAINT EVERYONE, a series of 1000 portraits. Quick Bright Things thinks his work speaks for itself.
To read more about Max and his work, please click here.
Collage from Underground S&M movies by Jessica Edwards. Originally published some time ago in Isis magazine. (Read more about the Isis: click here.)
Entering Shelf Life through a giant vagina, you know at once that this show does not shy away from the ridiculous. Shelf Life is a new immersive promenade show from young company HalfCut – and it starts as it means to go on.
A real strength of Shelf Life, and clearly an ethos of the company, is its sense of the absurd. There are some wonderful moments – from each audience member’s ‘birth’ through the six foot vagina to the wistful, slightly threatening glimpses of a woman in black scrubs holding a bunch of black balloons. Each journey through this show is different, which is both a strength and a weakness. For all the moments that I loved, there were probably as many that I missed. It’s a nice metaphor that in this show, as in life, you have to make your own way.
A major problem with the piece was that it promised much more than it actually delivered. There is a very real thrill of excitement when, for example, the audience is divided into different types of people upon leaving school (scientists, sportsmen, artists, etc.) but this seems to have little effect on the rest of the journey. Perhaps this is partly a parallel drawn with real life: being captain of the school football team usually does very little to determine what you become in life, but in a 90-minute compression of a potential 90 years, it feels like it should have greater significance. Frustratingly, there were many moments like this.
Another issue, which is often problematic in immersive pieces, was the ratio of audience members to performers. For me, the ideal recipe is 2:1 or at most 3:1 of audience to actor. Here, the cast was uniformly strong (stand-outs included Neil Connolly and a mysterious man called Rob who isn’t in the programme), but there were only nine of them. With an audience of – at a guess – over a hundred, they have given themselves a very difficult task. While the environment and quick, catapulting changes are stimulating, there are inevitable lulls (even moments of boredom), as the cast cannot be expected to be everywhere at once.
The real star of this show is its space. Marylebone Gardens, once home to the BBC London recording studios, is a weird and slightly sinister warren of rooms, glass doors, staircases and out of order lifts. HalfCut transform it beautifully (designer Katharine Heath does a great job on a shoe string) but use only a fraction of it. New residents Theatre Delicatessen have got their hands on something very exciting here.
Shelf Life purports to show us the ‘meaninglessness of life in all its glory’, and there is a certain satisfaction to the disconnected route you follow, with other discombobulated audience members; sometimes wearing hardhats, sometimes getting married or dancing to Rick Astley. However, in this rattle through the meaninglessness and glory of life, this show is somewhat lacking in substance. It is a reflection of the relative youth of the cast that almost nothing happens after ‘buying a house’ before ‘death’. Some of the ideas are a little undercooked, and might, with more time, develop into a much more satisfying show. As it stands, it is more a sequence of semi-connected images and experiences, some shining, subtle, and bizarre; some less exciting.
The show is populated with the absurd and the beautiful: an image of a student in a bear costume lipstick-kissing a balloon, or the quiet, disconnected waving of hospital staff as you leave the building both stand out. The ending is also wistful, simple and striking – look out for the end of the show, it’s great and takes place on a roof top looking out London. Shelf Life is by no means perfect, but (as with most immersive work) you get out what you put in. If that’s your thing – and you fancy coming out of the six foot vagina – go.
Shelf Life runs from 16th October – 10th November at 7pm and 8.30pm at Marylebone Gardens, 35 Marylebone High Street. For more information and tickets, please visit the Theatre Delicatessen website.