In the week that “covfefe” both baffled and delighted the Twittersphere, it seems appropriate to be watching a play that examines just how quickly news can spread through the medium of 140 characters. Chris England’s Twitstorm plays with the perils of social media gaffs and the culture of offence-taking and outrage that often follows. However, in trying to fit too many ideas into one slim play, the script is over-stuffed and loses momentum.
The central theme is certainly on trend. Not a month – perhaps not a week – goes by without someone’s latest post being called into question, usually followed by a flurry of reactions that are “shocked”, “appalled”, “disgusted”… and so on, and so forth, until the next incident comes along to take the heat off. Yet in Act I, the depiction of social media already feels dated as Guy (Jason Merrells) and Neil (Justin Edwards) discuss Twitter as if it’s some new and alien form of communication. Indeed throughout the first half it too often feels as if England is filling out scenes with exposition and tangents in order to reach a two-hour running time – which unnecessarily delays the whole point of the piece.
Things sharpen abruptly as Act II begins and the ‘twitstorm’ itself hits with force. As the “furore” unfolds at an alarming rate, England begins to draw out some provoking discussions: who is entitled to be offended by what; the potentially poisonous effect of those who set out with a mission to get others to clean up their act; and the kind of journalism that involves merely copying down a celebrity’s tweets to generate a ‘news’ story.
Indeed, Merrell’s live-streamed rant that makes Guy go viral all over again is one of the play’s high points, raising many of the conflicts and contradictions that this perhaps anti-social world of social media can generate – even if the speech does feel too obviously written to be a believable spur-of-the-moment outburst. It is certainly the moment where Merrells looks most comfortable in the role and is helped along by the foil of Ben Kavanagh, in an excellent turn as journalist Daniel Priest.
England really does throw all but the kitchen sink at this, with side-plots and subplots of charitable giving, blood diamonds, unexpected romances, unrequited love, a possible sexual harassment claim and even a shoot-out. It’s difficult to explore very deeply into any of the main threads without being distracted by another random turn of events. Just as we’re starting to dig down into a potentially intriguing or challenging avenue, the play bounds off in another direction, onto a different focus.
Out of these, the topic of charitable giving has a lot of potential. At first we laugh genially at Bex (Claire Goose), Guy’s well-meaning but rather naïve wife, with her monthly direct debit to ‘Child 4 Africa’ and the accompanying photo stuck to the fridge (replaced instantly when the charity transfers her donations to another child). Yet the idea of the white saviour, and the celebrity-endorsed Comic Relief video clips that emerge each year, are both ripe for some probing dark comedy and satire. If some of the fluff could be discarded, there would be room for some more incisive wit around the topic.
This isn’t to take anything away from the performance of Tom Moutchi as Ike, whose unexpected appearance at the Mantons’ front door is the catalyst for the resulting chaos. The character works best if we’re never sure whether is to be believed or not – is his innocence and openness genuine, or is that laugh too knowing? – and Moutchi keeps us guessing almost to the end. He milks the role of this trespasser for all its comic worth, highlighting every contrast between Ike and the people whose doorstep he has so surprisingly turned up on. The closing scene therefore feels like a disservice, as if the writer had run out of ways to tie everything up neatly and felt like he had to go out with a bang – which in this case becomes, unfortunately, more of a whimper. Ike’s ‘big reveal’ isn’t much of a surprise and his speech about his experience as a child soldier should be heartfelt, but seems out of place here.
There’s plenty of ups and downs in this play, and while there’s a fair few laughs – and some viciously timely references to present-day politics and celeb scandals – there are also many sections that feel overworked and hackneyed, and some shabby stereotyping. While the cast do a good job, the performances suffer when the dialogue doesn’t sound genuine, and there’s an inescapable clunkiness to the piece which means it doesn’t live up to the strength of its central conceit.
Twitstorm is playing at the Park Theatre until July 1.
Photo: Darren Bell