As I observed the other day, festivals seem to be all the rage at the moment, combining live performance and digital streaming options concurrently or as separate strands. One of the big hitters of recent years, festival-wise, has been the Brighton Fringe and with the launch of its 2021 programme a few days ago there are dozens and dozens of shows to choose from.
It is not unusual, of course, for festivals to revive successes from elsewhere and the digital medium makes this particularly straightforward as the heavy lifting of recording and editing has already been done. One such piece is Broken Link which won the first OnComm award of 2021 when it premiered as part of The Living Record Digital Festival earlier this year. As I’d missed it then (I can’t watch everything much as I might like to) it was tantalising to see it emerge once more.
Noga Flaishon’s immersively creepy piece for Harpy Productions uses Zoom and other modern tech to generally good effect to tell what is, essentially, a good old fashioned ghost story. A group of friends convene every year to remember Ellie who took her own life when she jumped from a water tower; because of the pandemic this year’s meeting is online. The four, Ellie’s devastated brother James, her still distraught best friend Megan, her once boyfriend Luke and an ex- work colleague Holly each eulogise the missing fifth member of the group and by doing so reveal some facets of their own characters as well as filling in the gaps about what happened to Ellie.
Then, a “presence” Zoom bombs them and is soon pinging up disturbing messages in the chat. They try to eject the disrupter but without success – they should have got Jackie Weaver on the case! Texts start scrolling up on the characters’ mobile phones which radically alter the flow of the conversation. I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say that this is the dead girl seeking some sort of closure over the events which took place four years previously… and then the revelations start to come out.
I found the characters pretty convincing though the men were better drawn than the women. The four actors all inhabited their roles well with honours going to Harry Ryan as budding alcoholic James who as Ellie’s twin has an unshakeable blood bond with his sister. But beyond that the piece was a little disappointing. For a start the revelations about who the invasive presence was came rather too early, meaning the play peaked after about 20 minutes when there was still half an hour to go.
The quartet also seemed a little too ready to accept the premise that it was Ellie’s ghost, and I was left wondering why the troubled soul had left it for four years to try and make contact and get closure. Perhaps it was the only the adoption of Zoom as a primary method of communication that had allowed the opportunity or perhaps Ellie’s ghost is not the resourceful type. For some reason I had the feeling that the play was supposed to be set in America – probably the notion of a town water tower which isn’t really a common feature of the British landscape – but the accents were all resolutely domestic; this remained as a bit of a distracting niggle.
Before the play begins you are invited to scan a QR code to your mobile phone. This brings up a second video which plays concurrently and allows you to see the various mobile messages which the four characters are receiving. I don’t think it is made clear enough that this needs to be started simultaneously with the main video and the result, for me anyway, was rather erratic with texts “arriving” minutes after they should do. At one stage I paused the play to allow the messages to catch up, but this broke the flow of the whole narrative flow so was not an ideal solution. Even after that I still found the tech “glitchy” (which was probably my phone) and I realised I was starting to pay more attention to the tech than to the play itself so abandoned that element. It’s still a neat idea but Harpy needs to legislate for the technologically challenged or those without flashy phones who might feel discriminated against.
Broken Link (clever title by the way) was conceived and has been executed for the new medium. Had it been a stage piece there would still be time to do a bit more work on the script and technological aspects but as it stands it now is what it is – which I suppose it one of the downsides of this new approach. You can’t win them all but at least this piece has a darn good try and it’s a diverting enough play to enjoy late at night.