The Nether – A Place for Prurience

The Nether: Tron + Kiddie Sex

The Nether: Tron + Kiddie Sex

In the future, there will be a place where all illicit sexual desire is permitted. Until then, we get to experience it vicariously via The Nether at the Duke of York’s.

The Royal Court’s 2014 production of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether has transferred to the West End – in part, I would guess, because of the astonishing set by Es Devlin. A police interrogation room is overshadowed by brightly dashing video projections, racing around till they form the outline of architectural shapes. Okay, okay, this has been shorthand for virtual reality since the 1982 film Tron. But then the projection dissolves and the scene transforms into a crystal bedroom, suspended in mid-air in a forest of silver birches. It is an astonishing Coup de Theatre: sexy, tempting and beautiful, bringing to life the idea of a time when the internet has become sensual. This crystal room is The Hideaway, a brothel in the internet where sexual affairs with young children are permitted thanks to the stern Victorian father, Papa, who acts as pimp and enable in this members’ only underworld.

There is a second Coup de Theatre in Jeremy Herrin’s production. The part of Iris, the child prostitute, is played by a child – when I saw the original production, the actor appeared to be about twelve-to-fourteen years old. It is the nature of virtual reality that we are freed from concrete reality, and even as I watched Iris coquettishly flirt with her client, I was constantly kept off-balance, unsure as to who or what Iris might be. Outside of Papa’s Hideaway, she could be anyone, or even a piece of computer code (indeed, her identity is the key to Jennifer Haley’s tightly-plotted police thriller).

The Nether is getting great reviews, acclaimed as challenging and edgy. Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph believes it poses the question that, if no one is getting hurt and no one is being compelled, perhaps The Hideaway represents a utopia rather than a dystopia. The problem with his argument is that Papa has made it a condition of entry that the johns murder Iris with an axe after a set number of sessions – this is Papa’s kink, and his customers are psychologically scarred by the experience.

As long as Iris is played by a non-adult actor, the great shock is that we are actually seeing the most forbidden thing in the world, child prostitution, live on a West End stage. There is nothing explicit, of course, and certainly nothing that approaches the obscene. Nevertheless, the shock is real. I am not saying Herrin, Haley and The Royal Court are wrong to cast the play as they do, and exploit the audience’s expectations. But let’s be honest, this is a classic example of having ones cake and eating it: Iris is both a child, because she is played by a child, and not a child because Haley’s story assures us that Iris could only be an adult in reality.

In the Nether, there is a place for prurience, and prurience in every place.

Rating: a very uncomfortable four stars.

Domestic Extremists – Cops and Chameleons


An ambitious young documentary director, Chloe, bluffs her way into the office of a day-time TV commissioner, and sets in motion a high-stakes thriller about policing in the UK. The Domestic Extremists is a new play by Dan Davies, directed by Ben Borowiecki at the Space, a converted church on the Isle of Dogs. Chloe sees her documentary as a lesson in economics on the privatisation of universities, illustrated with whizzy infographics. But once she wins over the reluctant producer, Chris, he grabs the opportunity to revisit a documentary he made back in the 1980s: an undercover expose of the police that all but destroyed his career. Chris’s days of undercover filming are behind him, he is now stuck making day-time TV programmes with titles like Better Bathrooms. But using Chloe’s footage, he shapes a documentary with the power to bring down the government.

Dan Davies is one of the smartest and most worldly writers around. The Arcola theatre recently showed the first act of his new play about migrants escaping Africa on leaky boats, heading for containment camps in Lampedusa. The Domestic Extremists is another ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ story, turned into a driving thriller with sharp dialogue and complex, natural characters.

The play has picked up great reviews. It deserves a transfer to a bigger theatre – though there is something about the current venue, beneath the space-age skyline of docklands, which adds an extra frisson to the production. The cast is excellent, especially Jonathan Leinmuller, as Chris, and Sadie Parsons, who plays a sardonic video editor, conspiring with Chris to hijack Chloe’s documentary.

Sadie Parsons also plays another five roles, demonstrating an extraordinary skill for chameleon-like mutations. These performances take place semi off-stage, played directly to camera to be transmitted on the TV sets that are stacked around Isobel Power Smith’s low-rent but effective set. Borowiecki and Power Smith’s production company, Noumena, sees itself as an experimental, political and immersive theatre project. In truth, the experimental side of the production is lightly-worn: this is a tight, naturalistic thriller. But the interplay between Parson’s astonishing quick-fire changes and the realistic unfolding story suggests a quiet kind of innovation – a way of seamlessly blending very different theatrical registers. And in a story of cops and chameleons, where no one is quite who they seem, Parsons performances somehow hinge the show.

Rating: Four Stars

Beckettus Maximus

Alberto and Samuel: Minimalist Scruffs

Alberto and Samuel: Minimalist Scruffs

Winnie is up to her waist, again. Juliet Stevenson is back at the Young Vic reprising her role in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. The landscape is rockier than in Beckett’s own TV film of the play, when Billie Whitelaw played the indomitable Winnie. Here, the set is formed from great slabs of sedimentary rock, sweeping down towards the audience to cover the vast apron stage. A cliff face stands behind Winnie,  and her bright, brave chatter is interrupted by mini-landslides that warn of her ultimate fate. Winnie will end the play up to her neck.

Isn’t it kind of odd that melancholic old Samuel Beckett is so well-loved? But the appeal is obvious: every single one of his characters is brave and undefeated. Beckett never really does anything other than indomitability. His plays are period pieces from a poverty-stricken, defeated Europe that, for all our present-day talk of austerity, we can no longer imagine – even those who lived through it. In 1950s France, ideas mattered more than today, and the ideas were stark and melancholic: existentialism, absurdism, minimalism. All the ‘isms’ disappear in this version of Happy Days which is too big to be weighed down by these weary, war-torn philosophies.

Not everyone likes Beckett, though. In his memoirs, Experience, Martin Amis claims that he once so riled Salman Rushdie by taking the piss out of Beckett, that Rushdie offered him outside for a fight (“I really do hate Beckett’s prose: every sentence is an assault on my ear”). If we strip away the language that Amis so hated, we are left with nothing but the idea that life is a massively brutal joke which humans, somehow, tough-out and survive. Actually, Beckett does the stripping for us. In later plays, like Not I, the indomitableness is all that is left: there is no part to play any more, just an extraordinary physical feat of endurance.

I saw Juliet Stevenson’s performance as Winnie during the first run. I’m guessing it has not undergone major revision. It has the same poster, with Juliet Stevenson sealed inside a beach ball.

Juliet Ball

The beach ball underlines what is implicit in the set: this version of Happy Days takes place at the seaside. Director Natalie Abrahami began her professional career with a pair of Beckett plays, Not I and Play. She brings clarity and logic to Happy Days: the problem is, it’s the wrong kind of wrong. Instead of a non-specific sandy wasteland, Abrahami gives us a beach-side cliff. Instead of an inexplicable catastrophe that buries Winnie, we get an ordinary landslide. (The landslide seems to be caused by the bell that punctuates Winnie’s day, which has mutated into a savage klaxon, a physical force that shake and shapes the landscape.) Everything begins to make sense, simply by applying the kind of questions that directors always apply to plays (‘Where are they?’ ‘How did they get there?’ ‘What do they want?’). Beckett is brought into the canon, and away from the strange blip in time of 1950’s Paris.

These familiar directorial questions do not work with Beckett, however. More than any other writer, there is nothing outside of his texts. Ask too many questions, and the interrogation destroys the hermetic absurdity of his work.

Beckett was a minimalist, but Abrahami has given us Happy Days Maximus. Today, we think of minimalism in design terms, like the bling-y sleekness of an Apple iPhone. But in the 1950s, the minimalism of Beckett and his set designer Alberto Giacometti was shonky, sketchy, scratchy. It reflected a sparse European wasteland that had been stripped to its bones with no explanation. Big it up, and something is lost.

Rating: Three Stars

Mortality and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

At the end of a long run, we are all dead.

At the end of a long run, we are all dead.

I went to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy, which seemed like a good idea and turned out not to be. The show has been running almost a year, and will close this Saturday, March 7th. Maybe the show was never perfect though it is hard to believe it was quite as full of tics and quirks when Chris Hart described it as ‘a scandalous delight’ in The Sunday Times last April. This is how long-running shows end, I thought, as I watched Robert Lindsay stick out his chin and gyrate a leg in the style of a lewd, ageing Lothario, miming a virility he no longer possesses. Then Lindsay did it again, and I had the exact same thought again. And so the show went on, with Lindsay all-too convincing in the role of a con-man with his best days behind him, and me, contemplating my mortality one leg-shake at a time. In the long run, we are all dead. At the end of a long run in the West End, maybe it just feels as though you are.

Robert Lindsay’s jutted chin and leg shake reminds me of the signature gesture of Bobby Ball, a northern comedian of the 70s and 80s who now plays Lee Mack’s dad in the sitcom, Not Going Out (and possibly in real-life, too). Bobby Ball’s ticcing leg signalled that, in his own head, he was still cock-of-the-walk, and raring to go. Lindsay may have been doing the bit with his leg since the start of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ run, but I doubt it. The stuff that creeps into a show gives itself away. Lindsay also throws a Hitler salute into the routine where he plays psychiatrist, Dr Shuffhausen, a familiar bit of business since Peter Sellers’ Dr Strangelove. The problem is, the accompanying song uses the Yiddish word ‘mensch’ and the idea that Shuffhausen is both Jewish and a Nazi suggests maybe Lindsay has not thought this through. He is throwing in stuff that he hopes will get a laugh – and sometimes it does, if the audience is old enough to recognise it.

I first saw Robert Lindsay as a teenager, when he used to act regularly at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. He loves audiences, and audiences love him back. He has never shown much respect for the idea of a ‘fourth wall’ and why should he? It’s just a piece of dogma and not a very useful one: the truth is, every new show has to decide what kind of relation to build with its audience. Lindsay could be brilliant at this – but not this time.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has fewer laughs than you would expect. Maybe this is why Lindsay started throwing in dated references to older comic turns, as though reprising his Old Vic success as Archie Rice. only this time for real. In playing to the audience, this show has become chock-full of random tics. At the end of a long run, perhaps the audience becomes too distant – like a weak radio signal, transmitting a message into the night, while the performers drift out of the show’s orbit and into deep space.

Rating: 2 Stars