The BBC’s Lights Up festival has made a feature of promoting new(ish) work planned for performances in theatres but clobbered by the pandemic. To facilitate production there is a heavy emphasis on monologue work and the latest release is no exception to the general rule. Harm by Phoebe Eclair-Powell was due to run at London’s Bush Theatre last spring but has now been remade for the small screen.
The monologist, simply known as The Woman, is an estate agent who doesn’t seem particularly at ease with her job as she clearly despises both the process and the people with whom she works; boss Barry is a particularly unreconstructed pain in the proverbial. Then she is given a new client Alice, a high profile social media influencer; gradually The Woman finds herself becoming infatuated and eventually obsessed with her.
Eventually she turns full on stalker following Alice online and determined to ruin her life by adopting the online persona of SadBitch11 (there are already ten other people with a prior claim to the name) and making increasingly damaging posts about her public and private lives. Not that Alice keeps much to herself in the first place. To her everything is a content producing opportunity; she and her partner Daniel don’t make dinner so much as create content about a paella which can then be Instagrammed and You Tubed. When Alice falls pregnant, SB11 first outs her and then sets out to undermine and destroy her through her online trolling. It’s a horribly fascinating scenario as the protagonist’s online persona gradually takes over her more normal self and comes to dominate and the obsession with celebrity ruins the life of both women.
Eclair-Powell has created a more modern day version of Miss Ruddock, the central figure in Alan Bennett’s Lady Of Letters (from his Talking Heads series) albeit one with a firmer grasp of more colourful language. I couldn’t also help noticing some similarities with another recent popular creation by a similarly double barrelled surnamed writer called Phoebe and if you are a fan of Fleabag I think you will recognise the parallels too.
In another overlap between the two pieces of writing a subplot centres on the protagonist having trouble with a stepmother, though in Harm I think this aspect didn’t really add anything to the main storyline. When it centres on its main narrative however, the writer really excels. Her central character is a deliberately deeply unpleasant creation and yet the dramatist’s skill is still to elicit our sympathies for this troubled young woman sucked into the present day search for recognition via the validation of others.
Leanne Best is on exceptionally good form as The Woman displaying a brittle exterior in which the cracks soon begin to show. Her performance really takes off and reaches the heights when she overhears a character assassination of herself at a party to which she has got herself invited. Her face visibly crumples and her voice cracks with emotion as she recounts the incident; this turning point perhaps alters our disquiet about the character. I’d only come across Best in the relatively lightweight series Cold Feet before, but after this mesmerising performance I hope directors will be queuing up to offer her more.
In a strange way the cancellation of the original project might have done Best and Eclair-Powell a favour. While I have no doubt that it would have proved a strong piece of onstage work, Harm really benefits from the close ups which a filmed version can provide. Director Atri Banerjee is able to use these to full advantage to show us what is really going on the central character’s head. I thought this was the strongest of the four filmed pieces from the BBC4 strand of the Lights Up festival so far and look forward to catching up with the rest which fortunately will remain available online for the rest of the year.