Saturday, March 14, 2015

'Wink' at Theatre503, 12th March 2015

We crucify ourselves upon technology. Throughout Phoebe Eclair-Powell's excellent Wink, a techno-religious awe gradually builds as we sit in front of a set that's reminiscent of a gigantic MacBook. This is a story about truth in online identity; how a blizzard of status updates, holiday photos and likes coalesces into people that might not quite be us. Interesting though they are, these aren't unique themes for modern theatre. What is unique is how they're translated into a play that's warm, tense, touching, beautiful and, most of all, goddamn hilarious.

A duologue, our two characters are John (Leon Williams) and Mark (Sam Clemmet). John is a French teacher at an all boys public school. Accurately described as someone "who probably wasn't allowed to teach at an all girls school" he's a virile, confident man in his late twenties. Though co-habiting with long-term girlfriend Claire he's having an affair and seems to charge every interaction with the opposite sex (even buying a coffee) with sexual energy. He's handsome and charming enough to get away with this, though you sense that as the years drip by he'd gradually progress from knicker-dampening Casanova to the subject of a sexual harassment complaint.

His obvious ease with women, coupled a chilled out teaching persona, makes him well-liked among his teenage boy pupils, none more so than the 16 year old Mark. While not quite worshipping the ground he walks on, Mark sees John as an idealised state of masculinity. This is unsurprising: with the recent tragic death of Mark's father he's bereft of any strong masculine influence, leading him to perceive John as existing in some idealised state of manly grace, light years from tangled hormones and furtive teenage wanking.

One late night Mark decides he wants a peek into what John's life is really like and begins to Facebook stalk him. John's profile is firmly set to 'private', but his girlfriend's isn't. So Mark trawls through years and years of her happy couple-y photos, his suspicions about how perfect John's life is growing. Craving a bite of the apple he whips up a fake Facebook profile of the man he'd like to be. The result is Tim, a Frankenstein-like creation knitted together from Google Images and a fertile teenage imagination. A friend request is sent to Claire.

But, John's apparently perfect life isn't so hot. His suppressed guilt over the affair manifests in paranoia that Claire is also having an affair. He logs into her Facebook to see a request from Tim and rapidly convinces himself that she's having an affair with this hunky, apparently perfect man. Soon pupil and teacher are engaged in a bizarre faux-romance; the paranoid John masquerading as his girlfriend to try and catch them both in a lie, while Mark does his best to play a hunky twenty-something online.

This bizarre situation soon becomes farce: teacher and pupil interacting with each other, both unaware that they're (sort of) conducting an online romance with each other. To contrast their ignorance the staging pushes the characters together, frequent surreal dance interludes visually depicting how entangled teacher and pupil are becoming. 

It's safe to say that of all the theatre I've seen in this year, Wink made me laugh hardest. A decent splodge of this is down to the wonderful performances, but they'd be nothing without this brilliant script. Eclair-Powell conducts an exhausting autopsy of masculinity, getting up to her elbows in the guts of what makes men tick. By portraying of manhood as a constant low-level hum of sexuality, attempts social dominance and vaguely suppressed insecurity she elicits gales of laughter as men recognise themselves and woman recognise their partners. Perhaps most indicatively, this is one of those rare shows where the cast have to pause before delivering their next line to wait for the laughter to subside.

This is all beautifully played by Williams and Clemmet. Williams damn near perfectly embodies complex masculinity, the edges of his character gently eroding as his strong self image violently collides with the neuroses and doubts of age. There's a tightrope to walk in portraying John; Williams playing him as a callous dickhead, but whose dickishness arises from a place we can understand. Best are the spat delivery of lines deriding the moronic pupils he devotes his life to: "Jesus the stench of Lynx and hormones is enough to make me want to light a match and see the polyester go up in flames. Thank God I'm in my twenties."

Clemmet more than matches this, his boyish looks and shuffly body language making him a totally plausible 16 year old. As we progress through the play we watch Mark stumblingly work out what kind of man he wants to be. We see this in minute changes in stance, the way he holds his hands as he talks or his gait as he struts. But nestled within this fake man (and within the fake online persona he creates) is still an obviously immature boy. As we peel back the bravado, Clemmet increasing ramps up Mark's vulnerability, resulting in shiver-inducing moments of raw emotion.

Wink is a fantastic play and a stunning debut for Phoebe Eclair-Powell. This is a theatrical royal flush of theatre: marrying elegant staging, imaginative visuals, confident performances, a perfect grasp of the online world, razor wit and an impressively perceptive excavation of how men think. Seriously. It's brilliant. Go and see it! I don't give out 5 star ratings very often but


Wink is at Theatre503, Battersea until 4th April. Tickets here.

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