So, apparently, at the beginning of this decade there was an online black marketplace called ‘Silk Road’, presumably named after that ancient network of trade routes that ran between Europe and Asia. Operated by Ross Ulbricht under the pseudonym ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’, it was an anonymous online forum on which you could purchase pretty much anything, but it was mostly used to flog Class A drugs. Using bitcoins, a cryptocurrency that provides a certain degree of anonymity, Silk Road was open to anyone and everyone, and was apparently relatively easy to access. So easy that a kid could manage it.
A kid like Bruce (Josh Barrow). Silk Road is set in Newcastle, and working class school-leaver Bruce needs some money. Raised by his Nan, and having just been dumped his middle-class girlfriend who went off to university without him, he’s feeling inadequate. Desperate and bored, he falls into the trap and places his first order.
Written by Alex Oates, and allegedly based on true events from his life (everything apart from the whole illegal selling of drugs bit, we’re assured in the programme), Silk Road captures the essence of the ‘small town’, and the boredom and directionless feeling that comes with living in one. Bruce is your normal Geordie lad, with dreams of bigger and better things. Through Silk Road, these dreams finally seem feasible, and his youth and naivety lead him to believe, wrongly, that he could get away with it.
Oates’ writing is amusing, and the little nuances he gives his characters make them interesting and authentic. Like Bruce’s boss, local drug King Pin and retirement home mogul Mr Shaggy, who has a particular fondness for Michael Jackson, or his stooge Mason who performs with the local operatic society. You couldn’t come up with it – so perhaps his characters have this authenticity because they’re based on real people. Either way, they’re complex and enjoyable to watch.
Barrow is largely responsible for the success of a play with a handful of named characters yet only one cast member. He gives each of them a voice, a stance, a position, gestures. He is the Nan, Mason, Mr Shaggy, the Ex-Girlfriend and of course, Bruce. He gives all of them distinct characteristics, and with limited space, no set and a few props, her crafts a rich, colourful story entirely on his own. He’s also hilarious, and his impression of his ex-girlfriend’s new toffee-nosed fella, who he affectionately refers to as ‘Oxbridge’, has everyone in stitches.
Silk Road may be a little far-fetched in its resolution, and it may be quite random to make an average lad from Newcastle some sort of online drug lord, but Oates’ humour and Barrows’ performance just about carry it off. Do I have any idea what a bitcoin actually is? No. Do I now know what cryptocurrency, darknet or torrent mean? Not really. But none of that matters. What matters is Bruce, and how his visions of being more than his family were before him, and more than his girlfriend thought he’d ever be, ultimately lead to his failure. Funny, full of life, and with a touching note on the mortality of loved ones, Silk Road is a cautionary tale for the modern age.
Silk Road (How To Buy Drugs Online) is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 1 September. For more information and tickets, click here.