Drayton Arms Theatre, London – until 29 February 2020
Netflix & Chill bristles with promise from the off. Ben’s a working-class boy who’s been to university and is saving for a masters by working as a chef in the local pub. He’s gentle, he’s kind, and he’s making the best of a bad hand.
We learn early that his single mother chose a new man over her son. Ben hasn’t seen her since he was 11. Perhaps because of that, he’s conflicted around women. He struggles with confidence and is self-conscious about his clumsy physical presence. The situation isn’t helped by his posh colleague and wingman, Ryan, whose easy and careless approach to sex and relationships and work and health constantly creates tensions.
Tom Stocks, who wrote Netflix & Chill, is the star of this play, and it is his charming vulnerability and nuanced performance that keeps you watching. Everyone else on the stage is a cipher representing the social themes and family dysfunctions that affect the outlook and behaviours of young men today. This is a play with the bold ambition of “tackling male mental health”.
Tom Stocks is the star and it is his charming vulnerability and nuanced performance that keeps you watching
There are some very funny moments in Netflix & Chill that millennials will recognise, from the pitfalls of unplanned sex to the pitfalls of planned sex. Running across the action is Ben’s inner voice. Booming from stage speakers in the style of a Come Dine With Me commentary, it is written as an illumination of his life but delivered as a series of sardonic asides. This unevenness in tone runs through the piece, though Luke Adamson’s robust and playful direction ensures that the play is visually interesting throughout.
The relationship between Ben and Ryan (Joseph Lindoe) moves through humour, argument, and moments of pure pleasure, that succinctly demonstrate the pillars of toxic masculinity which prevent men from revealing anxieties and asking for help.
Where the play falls is in highlighting mental health issues. It ably nods at contributory factors, but there is no informed understanding of the triggers, the behaviours, or the processes. Female characters – Sophie (Emily Ellis), Jill (Charlotte Price) and Ben’s mother (Julie Binysh) – exist only to offer Ben opportunities to express, share, or manage emotion. The play’s dramatic and unexpected ending is the first signifier of the central theme, but it comes too late, and because it shifts the spotlight to a minor character, it’s unsatisfactory.