Masterclass is the in-house charity of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket working with 16 – 30 year olds interested in gaining insight and access into the industry. Their inspirational talks over the last 20 or so years are a veritable who’s who list of big names from various disciplines such as: Roger Allam, Gillian Anderson, Eileen Atkins, Alan Ayckbourn, Mike Bartlett, Steven Berkoff, Cicely Berry, Brenda Blethyn, Hugh Bonneville, Matthew Bourne, Nica Burns and Jez Butterworth (and that’s just – some of – the As and Bs!). They also provide creative opportunities and in 2016/17 teamed up with Kidscape to create a new project called Cyberscene. The main outcome of the project, the play Cookies, remains available online alongside downloadable teaching and learning resources.
The title refers in this instance to the data used to track online activity, for the latter is the focus of this sometimes frightening piece about the use and abuse which is made of social media and online messaging. The one (imagined) prop that every single member of the 25 strong cast constantly refers to is their mobile phone and the actors make appropriate swiping gestures and speak the punctuation and emojis that form part of the seemingly never ending stream of messaging which goes on. Gradually it becomes apparent that there are three key stories which are unfolding. Eva (Cristal Cole) has distressing pictures of herself being spread all over the internet and becomes the subject of online abuse and stalking. Sosa (Leaphia Darko) tracks down her idol but becomes embroiled in a tragic situation. Salena (Rujenne Green) and Rayah (Shala Nyx) bond over a shared interest but when the latter joins Islamic State militants, the former finds herself being groomed from afar. The plotlines of all three are skilfully woven together and brought to their climaxes by director Anna Ledwich and playwright Emily Jenkins who has used real testimony to inform her writing and whose dialogue has an absolute ring of truth about it.
The seven actors at the heart of the storylines portray credible characters who find themselves sucked into circumstances rather than the perpetrators of them. Makir Ahmed as Simon (the apparent perpetrator of putting Eva’s risqué photos online) is particularly good at portraying the effects of the backlash against him and Shala Nyx’s indoctrinated Rayah is quietly chilling. Around this core team there is a chorus of young people from four London FE colleges who, co-ordinated by Natasha Khamjani, move and react with confidence and suggest the larger hive mind that is constantly at work, resulting in a degree of uncertainty and too often personal anguish as an individual’s world falls apart.
A largely bare stage is employed although there’s a delicious piece of irony in designer Frankie Bradshaw deploying an old-fashioned telephone pole at the centre. It’s a reminder of slower more considered times when there was far less pressure to be visible online and find oneself undergoing a constant barrage of incoming messages, opinions and, above all, judgements. While I don’t think the piece concludes that spending so much time online is necessarily a bad thing it does make it clear that social media and being online can be used to drive a wedge between people just as easily as it can draw them together. As is noted about the initial workshops which fuelled the project: “The discussion was often lively and impassioned and we learnt about the blurred lines between what is banter and what is bullying, how easy it can be to cross the line and how, when you cannot physically see the others involved, it is easy to exacerbate the ongoing ridicule of a person with a swipe of a finger while feeling very detached from it”. Quite!
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