One thing we can probably all agree on about the last year is that we’ve all spent far too much time online and although this has largely been work, family or pastime focused there are some dark corners of the internet where it is probably best not to go. This is particularly so for still developing teens who may fall under all sorts of malign influences and influencers with on occasions inevitable tragic consequences.
This is the premise of Enda Walsh’s play Chatroom which receives an, ironically, online revival from Northern Comedy Theatre. The company have generally traded in rather more lighthearted fare over the last year and done so frequently, producing no less that seven live Zoom plays over the course of the pandemic. This year they seem to be pushing the envelope rather more, starting with a self-written Valentine’s Sketch Show and now this rather bleak piece which although it has moments of mordant humour becomes increasingly uncomfortable though riveting watching.
It starts off in relatively light vein with Jack and William in the Harry Potter chatroom discussing the theory that modern children’s literature creates false expectations in real life. Similarly, Eva and Emma debate the ups and downs of Britney Spears’ career and how this has impinged on their own lives in another chatroom dedicated to the troubled artiste. Already the tone is darkening and it is in the third room we visit that things start to become really serious. Jim is contemplating suicide having endured bullying and badly needs emotional support, but Laura repeatedly states that she is just there to listen, not advise.
The various characters eventually find themselves in a room badged Manchester’s Bloody Opinionated where the banter starts to take on a darker hue and William and Eva decided to propel Jim towards an online suicide bid. This cruel manipulation is compounded by Jack and Emma opting out of the process when they find the going getting tough which leaves Jim exposed to what seems nothing less than downright evil. Whether he succumbs or not, I’ll leave you to find out; all I’ll say is that it doesn’t quite go as expected.
I’ve seen all of Northern Comedy’s online work and, although director Shaun Chambers, is still at the helm the young cast of six are all new faces to me. I was particularly impressed by Tom Hardie and Ben Knowles as William and Jim respectively. The two roles are rather more strongly written than the others but Hardie and Knowles are quite unflinching in their portrayals of bully in chief and victim respectively (they were apparently played by Matt Smith and Andrew Garfield at the play’s premiere).
William has a way with language, evident from his first appearance, which Hardie relishes as he manipulates his victim. Knowles makes Jim’s anguish palpable and you fully believe he is prepared to take his own life; his declaration “I just want my childhood back” is heartrending. The cast have a bit to do still in coming to terms with Zoom’s infamous time lag and there were one or two freezes – which admittedly could have been a problem at my end rather than theirs. Care needs to be exercised too in focusing on the camera rather than the script but it is still early days for this clearly talented team and, as ever, practice makes perfect.
Having never been in any sort of online chat room I have no idea whether the play replicates the experience accurately or not. However, if it does then all I can say is that I’m glad I’ve steered clear of such things. This play’s subject matter is an extremely difficult watch and so it probably should be especially as the mental health of young people is increasingly concerning and in the last week it is a topic that has once again dominated the headlines. Presenting it in this form is a very clever move as it raises the stakes for the viewer. Far from sitting in a somewhat remote theatre seat we are part of the online experience making us somewhat complicit in what is going on. More than once I found myself with the urge to comment supportively in Zoom’s chat function. The sooner we can get back to talking to each other face to face then the better. Meanwhile Northern Comedy is to be congratulated for a) striking out in a bold new direction which highlights one of the scourges of the age and b) offering an opportunity to largely disenfranchised younger actors during this difficult time.