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‘There are some memorable songs’: PUBLIC DOMAIN – Southwark Playhouse (Online review)

Bloody Donald Trump! That man seems to have the ability to upset everybody and everything he comes into contact with and that includes an online live-streamed play … but I anticipate myself. Last night saw the premiere performance of a new musical piece called Public Domain live from Southwark Playhouse. It is a work that has been in gestation for a long time – the programme notes state that it went into development about a year ago and the world is now obviously a very different place. It was due to play before Christmas but unfortunately got postponed and it seemed yesterday that some sort of curse was hanging over it. There was a considerable delay at the start and halfway through the first number the plug had to be pulled and the show restarted. It’s more than a little ironic that this show about being on the internet seemed to be encountering resistance from the web itself.

It is a testament to the performers and production technicians that they didn’t let these hitches get the better of them and doubled down to give an interesting production the chance to step blinking into the light. The show is the brainchild of writer/performers Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke who started with the novel idea of creating a verbatim musical from curated social media posts, tweets and videos. The script/lyrics that have emerged both highlight the issues many have with social media but also emphasises the benefits – especially in a late scene where the elderly talk about how their lives have been enhanced by it.

There’s a certain Snapchat quality to some of the work as characters come and go rather rapidly but there are a couple of constant threads. One examines the rise and rise of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan (Mrs Zuckerberg) and the growing concerns over social media privacy and the use of data.

There are verbatim accounts of the couple’s (limited) media appearances and Zuckerberg’s testimony before various government committees about the monster corporation he created – or didn’t if you follow that particular theory. The other strand follows the online activities and increasing mental health decline of two You Tube vloggers. Forristal gives us Millie’s Fitnesse (sic) channel and her preoccupation with likes/follows; similarly, Swaggywan (Clarke) seems to be in constant need of reassurance from his unseen audience in order to validate his existence.

The dialogue all seems to be a huge parody of certain “types” until you remind yourself that the words have been lifted from the internet and come from real and obviously very needy people (oh, by the way PLEEZE follow my blog, guys!). I wasn’t sure that the two strands sat entirely comfortably together but on reflection I think to have concentrated on either one or the other would have provided a less substantial examination of the phenomenon .

Verbatim musicals are not an easy format in which to work though they can provide brilliant results, largely because actual songs can be difficult to formulate and the whole thing can descend into a string of pure recitative. Composer Clarke manages this brilliantly and there are some quite memorable songs in the piece. One I found particularly effective I’ll call ‘Not Happening’ (sorry, I don’t have a list of song titles, but it comes around the halfway point) which Forristal delivers beautifully simply and is movingly joined by an onscreen video chorus of boxed faces as it reflects on the lockdown experiences. And there is a great deal of fun in a song about Tik Tok – Clarke this time – which both mocks and celebrates the meteoric rise of the app over the last year. However, this is when the curse of The Donald struck!

Having triumphantly overcome the initial difficulties the show, directed by Adam Lenson, had been running smoothly. It makes very good use of video footage overlaid onto the performances and in the Tik Tok number Trump popped up to give us his views and suddenly the stream stopped – the man broke the internet! Nothing daunted, the technical team threw themselves into posting a video of the whole show so that the audience could enjoy the ending – which I did; special thanks to Charlotte in the box office for being so patient and helpful.  It’s nice to know that the spirit of “the show must go on” continues for online theatre too. Southwark Playhouse has made a virtue of replicating as near as possible the theatre going experience by live streaming its content whenever circumstances have allowed and have already turned out at least a couple of first-class winners such as Before After and, especially, The Poltergeist (due to be repeated soon – don’t miss it). Public Domain now joins this august group and comes with a strong recommendation to view either one of the livestreams today or one of the encore recorded streams which start on January 19th. Then you can go on your You Tube channel and tell us all about it!

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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