Monday, 29 September 2014

Theatre review: Teh Internet is Serious Business

I can't believe they missed the obvious typo in the title of Tim Price's Teh Internet is Serious Business - surely that should be "SRS BZNS?" It's the story of the "hacktivists" of Anonymous and LulzSec, and the second show in a row at the Royal Court Downstairs most of whose action takes place online. But both in tone and style it differs a lot from The Nether, as one major stipulation Price gave director Hamish Pirie was that he couldn't use video screens or projection to represent the internet. So, in Chloe Lamford's design, data is represented by a huge ball pit downstage, setting the scene for a - sometimes dangerously - playful world. Following the death of his stepfather, Jake Davis (Sexy Scottish Peter Pan Kevin Guthrie) is crippled by agoraphobia. Barely leaving his bedroom in the Shetlands, his only social outlet is the messageboard 4chan.

Taking on the handle Topiary, Jake becomes part of Anonymous, a group of hackers who initially take on the Church of Scientology's attempts to censor the internet. As their targets become bigger and more powerful, he's one of the elite group of six who become LulzSec - but now even governments are trying to bring them down.

"Anarchic" is a word that'll no doubt get used a lot for Teh Internet is Serious Business, its opening scenes as Jake first dips a toe into 4chan confusing, but deliberately so - a disconcerting but accurate depiction of trying to join in with an endless tide of rapid conversation with its own rules, language and personal relationships long-established. The stage is packed with people dressed as memes like Grumpy Cat and Condescending Willy Wonka - I wasn't familiar with all of them, like Socially Awkward Penguin or Advice Dog; then again Richard hadn't even heard of Rickrolling, I'm not that out of the loop.

Guthrie steers us through all the madness, his Jake starting off socially awkward even online, first wandering around in his robe, then pulling at his shirt before gradually building on his popularity, "Topiary" becoming a glitzy host, singing big numbers to introduce the latest high-profile hack. It sets the IRL Jake off to try and seek help for his agoraphobia, and some social skills could come in handy as his real identity starts to come under scrutiny. (Spoiler alert: The real Jake was in the bar beforehand, talking to real humans, so I think he's largely dealt with some of his socialising issues.)

The show does an interesting job of presenting both online relationships - Mustafa (Hamza Jeetooa) trying to get Kayla (Kae Alexander) to help him become a better hacker is turned into a flirtation - and irritations: LulzSec are nearly brought down when a talented but utterly un-security conscious hacker tries to join their ranks; Ryan's (Ferdinand Kingsley) bull-in-a-china-shop nature is represented by turning him into a one-man band.

The show also looks into the cruelty that can come with online anonymity - Anonymous are initially seen trolling memorial pages on Facebook before deciding to take on corruption instead. Even then, though, they sometimes fail to see the difference between targeting big corporations and the regular people who work for them. Narcotroll's (Eileen Walsh) disapproval of Anonymous' attacks on Scientology sees her sabotage them, and threatening to take Sabu's (Nathaniel Martello-White) kids into care sees him ultimately bring down LulzSec.

A cast of 15 that also includes Natalie Dew, Kerr Logan, Sargon Yelda and Lanre Malaolu take on the identities of humans, avatars, memes and websites in a chaotic story that would probably struggle to make sense without the Royal Court's resources at its disposal. As it is, the show outstays its welcome by about 10-15 minutes, but it ends with a twinkle in its eye. Teh Internet is Serious Business is one to catch for its attempt to stage the virtually unstageable, and a lead from Guthrie that showcases his pectorals low-key charm.

Teh Internet is Serious Business by Tim Price is booking until the 25th of October at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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