FringeReview UK 2021
Written and performed by Francesca Forristal (also Book) & Jordan Paul Clarke (also Lyrics) including all forms of interactive and electronic material. Directed by Adam Lenson Set and Costume Design Libby Todd, Lighting Matt Daw Video Design Matt Powell Movement Director George Lyons, Joe and Nikkie Davison production. Stage Mananger Roni Neale, Livestream Production Christian Czornyl Till January 16th 2021.
Southwark Playhouse were one of those theatres that bravely brought back a production with a truncated run back in March – in November 2020, though again cut short by the second lockdown. This, The Last Five Years is going to be broadcast on January 29th.
It’s just one of a clutch of online productions during third lockdown Southwark have launched 2021 with, in their branded Southwark Stayhouse season. From February 5th too, there’s a return of the stunning Papatango-Award-winning Shook by Sean Bailey, premiered at Southwark in November 2019.
So Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke’s Public Domain is a glittering ride into the dark, ALP Musicals’ verbatim musical created from available videos and YouTube material. Filming seems to take place in the Southwark Little with vertical lighting pierced in a series of lancets, two seats lit baby blue or scarlet.
First off we’re blasted into Facebook friending as the two writers/singers launch ‘we feel just a little less alone’. Though it’s dark. The lyrics end with fake news and data misuse – delightfully riffing off Facebook’s own mission statements. Forristal’s soprano has a gleaming top note ideal in musicals soprano, light airy, ringing. Clarke owns a huskier tenor, almost preppy and gawkish but with lyric power and a sudden leap into fifth gear.
The free-flow songs end-to-end are bright and tuneful, slip by easily but attractive enough to make you want to compile a disc. Crisply directed by Adam Lenson the tight set and subfusc costume design by Libby Todd are all that’s needed on this postage-stamp space that opens into worlds, stylishly lit by Matt Daw and aided by Matt Powell’s video design. You’d not think there was much room for George Lyons’ movement direction but this is all about sashaying to the rhythm of the internet.
There’s two storylines – the adventures of a young Influencer Millie and a school dropout The Swaggyman, and as a power-couple Zuckerman who in contrast to the aspiring and increasingly desperate British pair glide inviolate through all the accounting they’re invited to make.
Again in contrast to users, the potentially dangerous resorts of Facebook are structured to allow the powerful to impact on the powerless, themselves often punished for obscure breaches, including in one deliciously sour moment, imitating Mark Zuckerberg (Clarke’s domain of course, visited on his other character Swaggyman). And former president Trump graciously sings a riff too, apparently for no fee.
The ferociously-nurtured need for peer recognition affirmation in particular looks, are all set up. We follow Forristal’s law graduate who decides to be a health coach, and Clarke’s angst-prone occasional poster ‘on the hunt for a boyfriend’ but far too lacking in self-esteem to go out for one. There’s a cheeky ‘Lord knows’ out of Morrissey.
Identities morph, Forristal’s Priscilla Chan and Clarke (he’s Mark here, that Mark!) couple with a baby, and we’re launched into a frenetic set of life-habits starting at five (her) and (two pm (the other him, not Mark!) as the two performers sashay into and out of identities. It’s excoriating – this glimpse into the ceramic heart of emptiness. Its clear though that Zuckerberg’s hearing is the core polemic of this musical.
After a litany of the Zuckerbergs motivating their children by taking them into their oh-so cool workplace – that the late David Graeber refers to as ‘bullshit jobs’ – we’re even treated to footage. It’s a useful strategy, given the illuminated black box with lighting and seats has its varietal limits. There’s play too with gaze and screen effects including sudden shrinkage into YouTube-with-feed mode in the Want To Be Popular/An Influencer – Millie’s Finesse ‘the best job ever… you guys are my friends’ and The Swaggyman (imminent school drop-out) flash up. Emojis are no good if you want to influence the world, ‘stay authentic’ whilst of course we see this spinning into the dark.
Forristal’s turn as Senators Hatch and Congresswoman Beatriz Pence in the Zuckerberg hearing (luckless Clarke’s straight man, unnervingly managing to resemble Zuckerberg) are parodic but pointed. Forristal boasts an enviable range of sung voices from Sarf London female through gruff Senator to Surreh centenarian later on: and gives them all ringing sonance.
We then hear from Facebook former employees like Shawn and Michele. Tasked with moderating they’re given no support and end traumatised by iguanas beaten to death and babies dying ‘covering Facebook’s mistakes’ by simply being exposed to evils and themselves flushed away as collateral damage. It’s a powerful moment, though the music slightly more rhythmically forceful doesn’t change its essential register. There’s a sense of unreality the format fosters, a bit like Facebook itself. But it stays with you.
Then we’re back with our hopeless Vlogger and Influencer. Far more clearly what emerges is an elegy for 2020 and lockdown: ‘It was fun while the sun was shining/but now dark at four o’clock’. It’s in stark contrast to the Zuckerbergs, Mark back at a Congress grilling where the Congresswoman finally admits she’s out of time and leaves him in disgust. Whilst Priscilla on Good Morning America extols the joy of her three-year-old recognizing and demanding honey Cheerios.
By contrast the users of this marvellous invention suffer the very censure its designers float free of, including responsibility. TikTok brings Swaggyman terminal censorship issues as the latter desperately tries each platform in turn. Public Domain underscores the isolation lockdown reinforces on a medium designed to connect, machined to alienate.
Whilst we leave the relentless Mark Zuckerberg singing glossy affirmatives over TikTok, in Teflon mode, the two users come to very different conclusions.
Whilst morals are inevitably pointed (this is a musical), the two influencers neatly wrapped in sad virtue, the end is affecting. Whether it’s just the Vloggers or actors, both seem listening to and enacting much older people (over 100) also coming to terms with new media – gifs and selfies – with more gentle outcomes in the continual refrain: ‘I can send a picture… I sent a lovely boat gong across the ocean. It’s super isn’t it? It’s really marvellous.’ Whist this paradox echoes it seems the influencers are taking another punt, socially responsible, connected finally – and we’re up to the minute with images of the January 6th storming of the Capitol and NHS emergencies.
The two creators and performers perform a delicate sashay of their own between the creators of an unaccountable hegemon unleashing suffering as well as connection, and those bullied for small face-saving infringements. They’re also deft at pointing up those bullshit jobs the hapless Facebook employees were exposed to, and bullshit vocations of those riding the technology as influencers, whilst it’s more vital to get out into the park and scribble on a real diary, talk to centenarians (a bit like Berowne at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost), agitate for a better world.
This is a warm, bright, tuneful way into grey matter and gimlet-light at the end of long Covid tunnels. It’s never too fuzzy – despite Facebook fades – and can be hard-hitting. Though verbatim theatre, clear storylines mean you take the show’s kernel whistling with you into the dark.
At 65 minutes it’s worth anyone’s time and emphatically money, as Southwark pull out all the stops to use this very technology to launch their 2021 season. Do catch this and all that follows, particularly The Last Five Years, another musical from the film and the magnificent Shook.