Friday, January 26, 2018

Review: 'Silk Road' at VAULT Festival, 25th January 2018

Silk Road reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Why bother dealing with an unreliable and shady character whose grotty bedroom you have to sit around making small talk with when, with just a click of a mouse, the finest narcotics the world has to offer can be winging their way to your house? Or, as Silk Road puts it: "Postman Pat brings your smack to your door with a smile and his black and white cat is none the wiser"

Alex Oates' play is about the Silk Road, a darknet website that allowed its users to buy and sell drugs using bitcoin. It was founded on principles of anonymity and security, though this was blown wide open when the site's founder, Ross Ulbricht (aka the Dread Pirate Roberts), was arrested and his laptop taken as evidence. The FBI then shut down the website and seized its funds - which amounted to 26,000 BTC (currently worth approximately $200 million). Ulbricht was subsequently sentenced to life without parole.

Staging all that is a tricky proposition - but Silk Road comes at it from a dramatically satisfying angle. If the Silk Road was a stone hurled into the still pond of drug dealing, then this play tracks the ripples rather than the impact. So, we follow Bruce Blackmore (Josh Barrow), a teenager in Sunderland who finds himself in over his head when he decides to dabble on some online cocaine dealing.

The show combines adolescent drama, absurdism and brief lectures on cryptocurrencies, TOR and, entertainingly, the precise method of how to hollow out a book to hide something inside. Barrow has an admirable rubbery performance style: allowing him to switch between, say, a sweet old granny and a thuggish small-town gangster without missing a beat. It makes for an energetic and exciting hour, the pacey rhythm contributing to the sense that things are spinning out of control.

The show is particularly successful in ramping up the tension towards the end, when dealers whose methods are baseball bats and cheese wire clash with bedroom dwelling teenagers and their laptops. The initial libertarian fervour of the Silk Road tended to whitewash the violence involved in the narcotics supply lines, so it's interesting to see Bruce get a dose of reality as it begins to catch up with his small-scale operation.

I've also got to praise a play that's comprehensible no matter how technologically literate you are - clearly and concisely explaining the technologies, philosophies and methods involved in an operation like the Silk Road. From minute one you sense that this has been written from first-hand experience in these murky internet waters, a confident knowledge that makes Barrow's performance credible.

It adds up to an hour of theatre that's as informative as it is funny and tense, weaving together a very modern situation in an eminently relatable way. A great start to a promising looking Vault Festival!

Silk Road is at Vault Festival until 28 January. Tickets here.

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