Edinburgh Fringe 2011
There’s not much to be said about internet chatrooms or forums that we don’t already know. You don’t know who you’re talking to. People lie. They’re a way of communicating without interacting. They foster loneliness. They’re full of sex talk. They’re full of saddos. What can another show about them possibly add? In Charlotte Essex’s terrific new play, the net becomes a means to explore relationships and characters rather than a subject in itrself. Delivered at terrific speed by the four-strong cast and staged with impressive clarity and economy by Laura Keefe, The Forum may have a late slot but, like the internet itself, it’s worth staying up for.
A famous producer once said “It’s not the subject, it’s the treatment”. So it is here. The basic set up is fairly standard: a guy, a girl, the guy’s closeted gay friend and the friend’s mother. For much of the hour, the actors stand facing the front and deliver their typed chat-speak lines to us, complete with abbreviations and key- combinations. This could be wearing, as proven by a musical in Edinburgh a couple of years ago with a similar subject. But here it is rather more sophisticated.
There are plenty of laughs to be had in the way the characters call on text-abbreviations. “Shift-star-hug” the characters all say online. “WTF!” gasps Cerith Flinn’s vulnerable, adorable central character Stu, as if shouting “Oh my God!”. Describing his new job as a no-win no-fee lawyer he tells one of his net-friends “I’ve signed my life away to the shift-star-horns.” But this short-hand has darker currents later. “FML” they often say, meaning “Fuck My Life”. Initially a comic line, it reverberates later when various of the characters tell a confidante “How did it all get so fucked?”. Frankie (the appealing Meghan Treadway), the posh girl who we first met helping Stu to masturbate online and who later becomes his friend, is offered genuine support by her former chat-partner who she has since met in person. “THX” she says, the text abbreviation for thanks. He carries on. Her next response is the full word “Thanks”. This subtlety amidst the wit and banter of the play marks Essex out as a writer to watch.
Director Keefe uses lighting, pace and understatement to let the play do its own work. Indeed the few moments that don’t quite land are when the tensions are heightened; it’s the limitations that the chat forums impose on someone – only having words on a screen – that make their interaction so engaging. The final scene, in which Jacob James Beswick’s pent-up teenager Jed speaks online to the mother he lives with (played touchingly by Kate Cook) about his sexuality and their relationship while they both pretend not to know each other’s true identity, brilliantly uses the abstraction of the internet to bring a moment of real human connection. It is telling that this scene rings much more true than the row they have at home earlier, one of the only scenes in which the characters speak directly to each other in real life.
There have been plenty of plays about the internet and there’ll be many more. Enda Walsh’s Chatroom (the National Theatre premiere of which featured Andrew Garfield and Matt Smith before they became screen stars) remains the definitive example so far. The Forum, though, is a worthy successor and a terrific calling card for Charlotte Essex.
All involved deserve a good shift-star-hug.