One of a parent’s strongest instincts is to protect their child. James Fritz’s 2014 thriller Four Minutes Twelve Seconds tests its strength in the digital age, asking how parents can protect their children from the dangers of the Internet which they don’t fully understand themselves. Chris Lawson and Natasha Harrison’s slick production concentrates the play’s wrestling tensions into an increasingly gripping debate over responsibility and punishment.
Parents Di and David discover a sensitive video involving their son Jack has been unwittingly released online and distributed between his friends. As he incurs violent threats provoked by his ex-girlfriend Cara’s allegations that he deliberately published it to humiliate her, his defiant parents go to worrying lengths to mitigate the damage.
Anna Reid’s minimalist design exposes the human crisis on the coldly bare stage. The sterile white, straight-edged geometric set visualises Di’s attempt to maintain perfect order and stability inside the family. The play opens with Di and David standing downstage where they fall back from blue lights, like those of a police car, as crime invades the home. Andrew Glassford’s discordant score, deafening thuds and scraping metal, works hard to escalate the tension of what begins as a relatively innocuous premise: the production of a sex tape in 2020 isn’t much of a horrifying prospect. It’s only when the sense of patriarchal arrogance overriding consent emerges in the second half that the unease becomes darker and more disturbing.
The play is clearly focused on parents – Jack’s presence is felt only by the upstairs light, presumably from his bedroom, which flickers in transitions – somewhat signposting the plot twist. This does make Di and David’s quarrelling a little repetitive, especially in the second half dominated by a rapid sequence of brief arguments which flow like a piece of malfunctioning software. Likewise, there’s some tonal glitching in the first half which jitters between comic parental ignorance to the world of online pornography, and their guilt-ridden fear of their son’s potential culpability. However, it eventually leads to a clever reversal from assuaging adults of their technological naivety at the start to implicating them as complicit in their children’s wrongdoing at the end.
It benefits from the two terrific central performances of Jo Mousley and Lee Toomes as the conflicted parents. Mousley’s high-pitched shrill panic portrays a mother desperate to preserve her idealised perception of her son, with her brash quest for justice fuelled by prudish shame as she encapsulates how a mother’s love distorts objective rationality. As “hippie dad” David, more interested in his laptop than supporting his wife, Toomes’ exasperated bewilderment typifies his lax encouragement of his son to enjoy the liberated freedom and experimentation he once did.
Though Noah Olaoye earns sympathy as schoolfriend Nick, hinting at his underlying pain watching his best mate Jack in a relationship with his own secret crush Cara, Alyce Liburd too aggressively conveys the scorned girlfriend’s resentment. Both lack the balance and weight with which Fritz develops the parents. Similarly, he cursorily integrates the social dimension of class divisions. Di and David’s aspirations are only alluded to by her snobby comments about comprehensive students inferior to Jack’s academic ability. Fritz would reinforce the damage of parental emotion by sharpening the impression that Di is especially aggrieved by her son’s life prospects being upended by a girl as “stupid” as Cara.
This is one of Fritz’s first plays, and this incredibly engrossing revival shows how remarkably accomplished it is as a contemporary warning about the dangers of online and offline relationships.
Four Minutes Twelve Seconds is playing the Oldham Coliseum Theatre until 7 March. For more information and tickets, visit the Oldham Coliseum website.