Thomas Burns Scully
Last week I wrote a review about a play from the nineties that was topical at the time, and has since had its subject matter date slightly. An element of deja vu seems to have come in to play. This week I am writing a review about a production of ‘Chatroom’ by Enda Walsh, a play about the dangers of the internet first performed in 2005. Again, the subject matter of the play has dated somewhat. 2005 is pre-Facebook, after all, which essentially puts the play in the technological Cretaceous period. That said, the issue of cyber-bullying never goes away, so could an up-to-date production of ‘Chatroom’ achieve a timeless relevance? Dalliant Productions have taken to the stage at The Tank to see if there’s something in the idea.
‘Chatroom’ takes place in cyberspace, in anonymous chatrooms populated by teenagers from a nondescript suburban town. In the original script of the play it is a British town, in this production the references have been changed to set it in the United States. On these chatrooms a boy called Jim talks to strangers his own age, trying to reconcile his feelings of emotional abandonment for his mother, and his actual abandonment by his dad. He tries talking to sympathetic ears in suicide chatrooms, but eventually finds himself in a room with a cynical trouble-maker called William, the equally cynical Eva, the shy Emily, and the uncertain Jack. William and Eva alienate the other members of the chat by making Jim tell them about his problems, and then start to push him to commit suicide.
I liked Dalliant Productions’ work on the play. The creative team of Joseph Hayward and Jessica Kazamel put together a dark vision of cyberspace that sparks of minds with a good feel for stagecraft. As soon as the lights go down at the start of the show, that’s all you get from the tech booth. The play is entirely lit by flashlights held by the actors, creating the idea of apparitions in the void. It’s rather chilling, and gives the play a raw, fringe feel. The idea has probably been done before, but it feels fresh here. The cast is very good. Isaac Volbrecht as Jim wears his heart on his sleeve throughout, Micah Scroggins as William is conniving as all hell, Savanna Cummin as Eva reminds you of a darker iteration of Regina George from ‘Mean Girls’; and Cath Shelton, Yaw Asante and Erica Lupinacci all turn in performances which would stack up against any other actor who has played their part. The casting and aesthetic stars are all in alignment in this production. In fact, Dalliant’s work on the play is so good, it makes you forget that the play they have chosen to perform doesn’t really work.
For a play with such a blunt and obvious subject matter, writer Enda Walsh doesn’t seem to understand how the internet works. The world of cyberspace is painted in broad strokes that don’t accurately reflect how the net functions or how people on it behave. Yes, the internet can be a sinister place, no one’s denying the realities of cyber-bullying, but the world Walsh presents here doesn’t resemble what I know cyber-bullying to look like. This could be a virtue of the internet having changed a lot in the ten years since the play was written, it could be a virtue of Walsh inhabiting different parts of the internet than I do, but something about the world he writes doesn’t feel true to life. The speech patterns of the characters are those of how people talk in day to day life, not the awkward back and forth of communication online. The chatroom he presents is unlike any chatroom I’ve ever used in terms of functionality. The way the characters behave is sinister, but they have none of the powerful anonymity that real cyber-bullies have. In short, the world he claims exists in the play… doesn’t exist in real life. At least not as he tells it. And if that’s the case, then my question earlier is redundant. This play can’t stay relevant, because the way it was written means it never was. So what’s a girl to do?
Well, hire Dalliant Productions, apparently. They were able to make a play function that doesn’t. In theatrical terms, that’s like building a Frankenstein monster. An impressive feat, and they should rightly take their kudos for it. Dalliant are a good company, still under a year old and proving their worth quickly. They know how to get good actors, and put a good show together on a shoe-string budget. You should go and see ‘Chatroom’, and you should get on their mailing list, because they are going to do great things. ‘Chatroom’ is not going to be their signature production, but it’s a damn fine example of how they work, and the aesthetic they are developing. Watching ‘Chatroom’ at The Tank was a lot like watching “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?”. All the pieces are there for great things that are going to come, but the execution is still being refined. Go and see it, it’s only running for one more weekend, and it’s definitely worth your time.