Friday, November 13, 2015

'Four Minutes Twelve Seconds' at Trafalgar Studios, 12th November 2015

The internet allows us to fully realise our lives as narrative. Every experience we have can be converted into a 'milestone' to be disseminated to showcase our personal development, quantify our happiness and display our various successes. Four Minutes Twelve Seconds examines the darkly logical conclusion to this process: grappling with consequences of the 'culture of sharing'.

Sandwiched between two monolithic abstractions of OLED screens, writer James Fritz tells us a tangled tale of Jack, a 17 year old dealing with an online video of him having sex with his girlfriend. Jack, is an off-stage presence throughout, with the central characters his increasingly desperate parents Di and David (Kate Maravan and Jonathan McGuinness). 

Written as an unfolding series of revelations, the parents slowly work through denial, bargaining, anger as they navigate a constant stream of revelations that gradually give them (and us) the full picture of what's happened. Along the way we meet their son's best friend Nick (Anyebe Godwin), struggling to square what he knows with his friendship, and ex-girlfriend Cara (Ria Zmitrowicz), bristling with a potent combination of shame and spikiness.

A lot of enjoyment comes in the gradual reveal of the truth, so I will avoid spoilers for the most part, but it quickly becomes apparent that the situation is far more problematic and complex than it first seems. Along the way a mother's pride in her son is shaken to the core, the father reveals a worryingly utilitarian streak and, before our eyes, a hitherto happy marriage crumbles into ash.

Fritz zeroes in on powerfully contemporary social issues: touching upon the effect of hardcore porn on teenage boys, the permanence of online content and, most pertinently, the psychological validation effect of sharing every experience you have with others. Rumbling away in the background are deep undercurrents of class division and family loyalty, thrown into new configurations by a networked society.

Problem is, while it successfully identifies these concerns the play doesn't explore them with any great depth. The mutation of teenage sexuality by free access to hardcore porn (and the subsequent societal reverberations that causes) is a fascinating issue and one worthy of deep inquiry. But Four Minutes Twelve Seconds is content to skim over the surface, slightly hobbling itself with the dramatic choice of keeping Jack, narratively the central character, offstage throughout.

Further flies in the ointment come in the need for a constant drip of revelations. Right up until the final scenes Fritz has been getting away with it - though you half wonder why nobody ever says what they mean - but the performances and writing are naturalistic enough to skim over it. Yet in the final scenes, where Fritz is eager to get his pieces in place for a stalemate conclusion, he twists a twist too far (resulting in snickering from the audience). In a play hitherto composed of recognisable, believable and empathetic choices, a character makes a revelation that simply doesn't wash with what we know of them.

Fortunately, these moments of creakiness are ably papered over by Maravan and McGuinness' superb double act. They prowl around each other on stage, their arguments pushing each other to the corners, circling each other as they grapple with the enormity of what's happening to their son. Maravan in particular hits the emotional high notes with confident brilliance, making some of the character's later (somewhat outlandish) decisions weirdly believable. They also have a neatly honed sense of timing, artfully conveying Fritz's downtempo humour.

Four Minutes Twelve Seconds is a good play. It's not a great play - it proves unable maintain it's early tension and suffers from a surfeit of revelations. That said, it's eyecatchingly staged, excellently performed and the writing crams in an admirable sense of foreboding leavened with splodges of genuine wit. It's lean and muscular - a promising piece of theatre.


Four Minutes Twelve Seconds is at Trafalgar Studios until 5th December. Tickets here.

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