Saturday, January 23, 2016

'Clickbait' at Theatre503, 22 January 2016

The internet is a wonderful place, especially if you love watching teenage girls getting covered in jizz. Online porn forms the backbone of Milly Thomas' Clickbait, which variously tackles responses to 'revenge porn' (usually bitter boyfriends posting explicit videos of their exes online), a critique of ingrained puritan guilt at sexual pleasure and wonders whether it's possible to create a safe, modern feminist pornography company.

The narrative revolves around 19 year old Nicola Barker (Georgia Groome). We meet her in a state of turmoil - a debauched night in an Ibiza nightclub has resulted in an extraordinarily explicit video. Unless she can produce €10,000, the owner will upload said video to streaming porn sites. Nicola doesn't have the money, but she does have a stubborn sense of self. 

So, to the horror of her older sister Gina (Amy Dunn), Nicola uploads the video herself, thus defeating the blackmailer. This video immediately goes viral and Nicola becomes a minor celebrity. With the help of their 15 year old sister Chloe (Alice Hewkin), the three parlay her fame into a successful camgirl website. The public's insatiable desire for Nicola's genitals soon propel the three to financial success.

Building on that, and with the support of Nicola's supportive yet unhappy boyfriend Adam (Barney White), they launch Protest; a startup that provides the public a safe, hygienic and consensual space within which to produce their own pornography. But commodifying human sexuality proves a morally tricky proposition...

There's more than a whiff of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror in Milly Thomas' storytelling. Like Brooker, she takes a familiar modern scenario and, with a firm grasp of internet technology, takes events to a bizarre yet  logical conclusion. Clickbait does a decent job of it too, you can sense the research and thinking that's gone into this fictional world, best exemplified in the brilliant interludes where masked internet trolls act as an ersatz Greek chorus.

Thomas also shows off an admirably sharp turn of phrase. The actors take an obvious relish in delivering the sweary, spikily written dialogue, at its best reminiscent of a Patrick Marber. Younger sister Chloe in particular is a beautifully crafted teenager, eager to dive headfirst into an ocean of hashtags, user generated content and Apprentice-influenced PR.

While never boring, Clickbait comes with its fair share of flaws. The narrative is split - the second half taking place six years after the first. The first half, where the sisters grapple with sex video blackmail and gradually convert it into a business is fascinating stuff. This is due to the character's problems being genuinely relatable: we can put ourselves in the Nicola's shoes and ponder our own reactions.

The second half goes off the rails into fantasy, and the characters (particularly Nicola) become blurrily defined. Specifically, there's a revelation towards the climax that just didn't ring true for what we'd learned of our lead. There are a couple of flashback scenes after this that, purely from their placing in the narrative, you can tell are intended to provide context to this revelation. For the life of me I couldn't work out what that context was.

The latter half downward tick also meansthe first half's promisingly political angle promptly trips over its own shoelaces. Nicola begins the play stating "For the record, I am a feminist", and her Protest business is framed as a forward thinking, sex positive, woman friendly concern. It proves to be anything but, though the play can't quite bring itself to assign blame to anyone. I deeply doubt that Thomas is trying to take a dig at sex-positive, yet short-sighted, feminists, but that's how it comes accross.

I respect what Clickbait is trying to accomplish. It's genuinely funny, sex positive, imaginative, well-performed and nicely staged, but it doesn't stick the landing. What Thomas actually trying to communicate remains elusive even as the curtain falls, making for a distinctly unwelcome fly in the ointment.


Clickbait is at Theatre504 until 13 February 2016. Tickets here.

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