Friday, March 22, 2019

Review: 'Random Selfies' at Ovalhouse, 21 March 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

Loretta is ten years old and cannot understand why she would want to take a photo that isn't a selfie. What on earth would be the point of a photograph without her in it? This is the core of Mike Kenny's Random Selfies, a show that tries to understand how social media has altered the way children perceive the world, their relationships and themselves.

The show is firmly set within Loretta's world. Christina Ngoyi plays every role, altering her tone and body language in order to quickly convey her teasing mother, older neighbour Mrs Thing and her new friend Maya. A meandering narrative takes through a typical couple of days in Loretta's life in which she meets a new friend (asylum seeker Maya) and worries about whether she's going to be invited to the popular's girl's birthday party.

Though the set is a broadly realistic ten-year-old's bedroom, Rachana Jadhav's digital projection mapping allows it to become various other locations, as well as introducing hallucinatory depictions of Loretta's life and feelings. Memories of old posters fade into view on the walls, a wall becomes transparent and astronauts float lazily through the night sky. 

Nothing particularly dramatic happens in Random Selfies, but then the whole objective appears to be to create a play that mirrors the lives of any children in the audience. I'm sure they can empathise with Loretta when she protests her mother temporarily confiscating her tablet, annoyed at the invasion of privacy and worried that her secrets are going to be revealed. Similarly, there's a nicely pitched eternal angst about fitting in, with Loretta fretting that her name isn't amongst the most popular names in the country.

Running through all of this is a theme about fear of invisibility, a metaphor for loneliness. First introduced when Loretta and her brother are discussing which superpower they'd have, her brother sees it as a ticket to doing whatever he wants and learning secrets. Loretta understands it as a kind of existential threat: her world is governed by visibility and microscopic kernels of praise, the worst case scenario her fading into life's background and forever going unacknowledged.

This is all very relevant stuff. You can't open a broadsheet without reading some columnist fretting that children these days are being made miserable by their exposure to social media. I'm generally pretty sceptical of this sort of thing: every generation is 'ruined' by some new technology that adults are suspicious of: be it social media, texting, videogames, the internet or television. 

But there is definitely something dramatically worthwhile about getting to grips with the unique ways that online interaction affects children. The best moments of Random Selfies are when Loretta is curating a new identity for herself, trying to rebrand herself 'Lola', with a fresh personality at odds with her true self. Watching children promoting themselves within a competitive marketplace of personas is a great way to show how a hyper-capitalist society unconsciously warps those within it, and the musings on this are when the show is at its best.

But - perhaps because the play is short and aimed at children - there is simply not enough time to properly work through this complex topic. Throughout the show, there's a tension between keeping it accessible for children in the audience and including enough meat for the adults to chew on. The end result is a show that's too dull for younger audiences (I heard bored whispering) and too lightweight for adults. 

I'm with the kids on this one. Though I appreciate that the show shies away from talking down to younger audiences by dramatising their lives without condescension, it struggled to keep my attention. And when the show is a mere 55 minutes long, that's a problem. At least in this form, Random Selfies lacks energy and rhythm, moving at a trudge when you want it to sprint. 

Random Selfies is at Ovalhouse until 7 April. Tickets here.

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