Above The Stag Theatre, London – until 27 October 2019
Tom Ratcliffe’s one-man show follows a tributary of the River Weinstein to the English audition scene – a world of bits parts and capricious agents. Essentially, it’s a riff on the old joke, “who do I have to blow to get this job?”
When we meet Tom he’s fresh-faced, pretty, a little waspish and self-aware enough to know that he’s plying his wares in a cutthroat industry where the pay is peanuts and the gatekeepers are entitled, talentless shits with God Complexes.
Before we follow him into the seedy milieu of online exploitation, there’s a hint that he’s entered a world in which it’s necessary to make moral compromises with oneself. He’s shacked up with a high-earning boyfriend he’s half into, lured by the promise of cheap living. It’s later suggested to him that this is an acceptable form of prostitution. Naturally, Tom is aggrieved by this slight, but it foreshadows the dilemma to come, when an encounter with an anonymous Hollywood agent online, promising a role in a Star Wars movie, leads to coercive behaviour.
Apart from providing an explanation for one of the decade’s greatest mysteries, namely how the hell did Felicity Jones gets the lead in Rogue One when the movie demanded a dynamic, charismatic anchor, Velvet has little new to say about sex and power in the Me Too era. One thinks of Kevin Spacey and the awful truth that this kind of baiting and violating of young talent, desperate to make their mark, has been going on since power dynamics in human affairs was a thing. By my count, at least 13 years.
Velvet’s one new element is to imagine this dynamic transferred to the world of encrypted messenger software, where anonymisation and global reach add a sinister layer to an already mucky backdrop. In this way, Ratcliffe’s story serves as a double warning; it’s the casting couch fetishised in porn’s power fantasies combined with the social media’s double role as a virtual Soho walkup.
The evening may be familiar to those who peruse trade publications and tabloids then, but Ratcliffe is a vulnerable and versatile presence throughout. He holds the room as he flits from hopeful to devastated, by way of lost. It’s an emotive and heartfelt performance.
The play’s coda, its bravest moment, will alienate some; it’s either an empowering development for the character, a chance to own his experience, or art reduced to a seedy, immoral transactional relationship. Who do you have to blow to get this job? Yourself, it seems.