IT KNOWS WHERE YOU LIVE. IT TELLS A LOT OF PEOPLE.
An artful cloud of insecurity surrounds James Graham’s new, mainly verbatim, play about the reckless modern surrender of privacy to technology. As we each take our seats, a sign flashes “Audience Member 022…” with a sci-fi bleep. We are asked to keep our phones on, silent, and share a demonstration of how Google tailors its replies: we search “pizza” and it knows where we are and can identify our seat. It also knows your search history: everyone inputs the words “Is it wrong to..?” and compares answers. Mine were innocent – “…to cheat / feel jealous / kill animals”. My neighbour, the Sunday Telegraph critic, was startled to find “..to have these fantasies” at the top of his wrongs. Others were even stranger.
Joshua McGuire plays “The Writer”, in therapy with Josh Cohen (Paul Chahidi, who plays a slew of other parts). He complains intially of a sense of disconnection and isolation which he half treasures and half resents, and is badgered to get online and research the play, by Michelle Terry playing a bossy director (the real director is Josie Rourke). Gunnar Cauthery, Jonathan Coy and Nina Sosanya nimbly play all the other people he interviewed.
His discoveries about the capacity of new technology to track, collect, store and pass on information are entertainingly shared with a mixture of demonstrations and at one point a sort of vaudeville-meets-1984 informatic assault on an audience member (ticket buyers are checked for willingness online). It is not only the trails of Facebookers and Tweeters which amaze, but the way Clubcard companies know whether a woman is pregnant before she does. Clues like a change of hand-cream, apparently. Political figures drift in and out, notably Cauthery as William Hague booming “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear”, and the News of the World man who snarls “privacy is for paedos” at Leveson.
Much fun is had with the vulnerability of unregulated “metadata” of contacts and movements – who with, where, when, how long? We take selfies and have them flashed up with pictures of the global servers they bounce through. An audience member is outed by ATG tickets for having been to Jeeves & Wooster, buying a G & T, and belonging to a postcode which makes him “40-60, a voice of authority who finds it hard to turn off work”. By the interval I thought the cheek, smartness, and humour deserved a West End transfer hit. And certainly it is a fine urgent topic for theatre to explore.
But despite occasional returns to the lifelong and emotional implications for the online generation, the play loses traction as it plunges into the wider surveillance issues about the NSA and GCHQ harvesting our data. Dealing with the Snowden security leak it tangles itself in imperfectly digested indignation. The actors become, verbatim, Guardian journalists and their impeccably righteous editor, and little of any other point of view is represented. It is like having a warm bath in leftish indignation with Shami Chakrabati to scrub your back: even as a leftish type myself it made me uneasy. Graham does, in the end, return to the Writer’s private emotion, but almost too late. Still, there’s one really good, gaspworthy surprise. Which won the fourth mouse, which before that was trembling uncertainly. My lips are sealed.
Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 31 May.
Sponsor: Barclays . Supported by Marcia Whitaker