Writing tastefully about paedophilia is no easy feat, particularly in the light of recent topical events, but Sophie Foster, writer-director of Project Lolita, should be commended for a bold approach to the topic and a fresh script that doesn’t shy away from the taboos surrounding it. Appropriately enough, Foster describes herself in her programme notes as a real-life Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up, but her script, whilst a little raw in places, displays a sparkling maturity and a refreshing honesty.
Upon entering, the audience is greeted by a looped VT of schoolgirl Katie Cahill (Charlotte Blake), who is being quizzed on her opinions of relationships between men and under-aged girls. The 14-year old responds, in a cut-glass voice, “Depends on the relationship, doesn’t it?” Thus both the subject matter and the premise of the piece are established. The play depicts the online relationship between Katie and disgraced ex-teacher Joe Price (Moj Taylor), as well as the shifting nature of blame, as neither party is as innocent as they would like to pretend.
Katie, or Agent K, is a government ploy to entrap paedophiles (presumably inspired in-part by the similarly-named digital anti-paedophile campaign in Spain last year) and she is reminded of her mission through timely Skype calls from her employer, V (Tino Orsini), who glowers on the screen behind her. With the exception of the penultimate scene, the protagonists are confined to their respective bedrooms, communicating with each other via Skype and Facebook. This inertia was counter-balanced with well-observed, and often witty, dialogue, but naturalism sometimes gave way to monotony.
The script is well-crafted, although fairly unambitious and the repeated references to Romeo (as in the Shakespearean character – although Master Beckham doesn’t go unmentioned) and his forbidden love allude to the inevitable fate of the characters. While the question ‘who is the real victim?’ is never explicitly posed, Katie is trapped in her predicament just as much as Joe, her frustration evident as she rails against V’s protective and, she feels, intrusive measures. Indeed, Blake is superb throughout, her diction cutting and her inflection and body language well-suited to Katie’s youth. With her teenage infatuation and precocious intelligence, she switches from flirtatious to belligerent – according to whom she is speaking with – and carries the emotional crux of the story with aplomb.
The title of the piece owes little to Nabokov’s eponymous heroine, and Taylor’s weary ex-teacher is certainly no Humbert Humbert; it is vital that he is likable, and Taylor is just that. Some of his choices were a little unclear but his performance is measured and very well-judged. Taylor’s ability to find the humour in the dialogue was a key factor in getting the audience on side early on. Orsini’s sinister V is rather more complicated to critique, as his actual stage time is limited. His undeniable stage presence is at odds with the rather two-dimensional nature of the character, and it is a shame that his baleful countenance wasn’t as evident in his appearances on-screen, a medium which seemed to limit or downplay his abilities. That said, he provides a firm and vital contrast to the heightened and frail emotionality of Blake’s frightened schoolgirl.
Situated in the labyrinthine Old Vic Tunnels near Waterloo station, the studio was prone to the occasional rumble of passing trains overhead, but an inviting set in an otherwise fantastic venue didn’t let this detract from the action. There were a few teething problems in direction, characteristic of a first-night performance: at one point Blake walked out of the lit area completely in her zeal to escape Orsini, and her tendency to lie on her bed obscured her visibility to anyone sat beyond the first two rows. However, even with an epilogue that is troubling on several levels, this is a well-constructed and thought-provoking piece and Angry Bairds can be justifiably proud of an engaging and challenging play.
Project Lolita is playing at the Vault Festival until 8 February. For more information and tickets, see the Vault Festival website.