Public Domain, Southwark Playhouse, review: like social media, it demands attention but leaves you feeling empty

Dominic Cavendish
·3-min read
Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke
Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke

Thumbs up emoji for Southwark Playhouse, commendably quick in October to welcome distanced audiences back with the musical The Last Five Years and subsequently adept at streaming experimental musical work.

The latest example was being developed at the venue in March, and was then completed wholly online. Apt, as Public Domain is about social media, and entirely composed of words brazenly filched from various platforms – notably YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.

It might almost be called The Last 10 Years. The show’s creators and performers – Francesca Forristal (book, lyrics) and Jordan Paul Clarke (music/lyrics) – cite two points of reference: Black Mirror and The Social Dilemma, the latter being the recent US drama-documentary about the adverse mental consequences, particularly on the young, of this ever-more-engulfing means of communication.

Some might further detect the influence of London Road (2011), the hit verbatim musical about the Ipswich serial murders of 2006 that converted often banal conversational snippets into arresting song. That show’s inspired stroke was to keep scratching the surface of inarticulate sentences, excavating more complex resonances, by turns reaffirming the sentiments and undermining them.

That alchemical creative process is apparent here from the start, when the duo intone, in a soft yet vaguely sinister loop, “We came here for our friends then we got to know the friends of our friends”; personal testament elides with corporate statement, becomes a vacant repeated mantra.

Francesca Forristal
Francesca Forristal

Yet where London Road had a big story and societal issue to grapple with, the problem here is that, beneath the reiterated superficiality – embodied in two composite characters, sunshiney health vlogger/ influencer Millie and a needy, pleady teen called Z – there is only hollowness and futility, as the pair bounce from one update to the next, disillusion and disintegration a given.

Musically the piece moves in tirelessly surprising ways, ever-changing tempo, aligning the air-head word-torrent (“You guys are my friends!”) with electronica redolent of amusement arcade and algorithm. Are these songs – they tip into catchy pop – or discordant cries from the mad-house?

For all the whizzy screen-grab material with which the manically upbeat performances on stage are live inter-cut (full marks to director Adam Lenson and video guy Matt Powell) – 70 minutes feels like an overload. But maybe that’s the point. You want to mute them, can’t quite look away.

The social media puppet-master class is represented by Mark Zuckerberg (Clarke is oddly similar in looks), whose policies and personal insights, culled from interviews and hearings, are also shaped into contemporary Sprechgesang (to Zuckerberg’s credit, Facebook’s privacy settings are such that the networking site isn’t source-material here). There are for sure unmistakable flashes of brilliance amid the slightly one-note satire, not least when the noise-storm is becalmed and we hear the warbled testimonies of the elderly, enthusing, in a wide-eyed way, about their late-onset technological adoption. The simple refrain “I can send a picture… I sent a lovely boat going across the ocean” becomes as stirring as a sea-shanty. While much of the rest knowingly enervates, this Captain Sir Tom Moore-like moment of grace alone warrants a heart icon.

Until Jan 24. Live performances on Sat 16, encore streaming from Tues to Sun. Watch online at Southwark Playhouse