Fine acting, sharp insights into the media world and a sobering look at the shoddy situation that most graduates now face. So why didn’t Lucy Kirkwood’s Royal Court debut, NSFW, really fire me up? Perhaps I’m asking for too much but, for me, a new play must have a life beyond the time in which it is written. NSFW sparkles with immediate relevance, but I doubt we’ll see it staged beyond this decade.
There’s something about plays that scream ‘Zeitgeist’ that instinctively puts me off. They feel too clean and I get so distracted by the obvious points they are trying to make that I find it very hard to lose myself in them. I hover – reluctantly - above the surface, able to appreciate the clear-headed insights on offer but unable to see the characters as anything more than symbols, the words as anything more than signifiers.
Another factor that makes it hard to sink into this play is the awkward line it straddles between satire and something more substantial; a compromise director Simon Godwin could have done more to clarify. Are these media figures meant to be exaggerated figures of fun or real characters with gnarly emotional depths? Julian Barratt is one of the few actors to negotiate this conflict. He plays the editor – Aidan - of ‘Dog House’ magazine and is, potentially, a cold-hearted bastard. This is a man who seduces his employees, demands his young writers sell their souls for his magazine and who (mistakenly) publishes pictures of 14-year-old topless girls.
Yet Barratt does not sell out – despite the fact his performance might’ve been more crudely powerful had he painted his character charcoal black. Although Aidan is patently corrupt, he’s only a real shit when the job demands it. He’s occasionally sympathetic with his colleagues and it is only when his magazine is at risk that the devil horns rise up in attack. It is the job that brings out the worst in him and will bring out the same ugly, survival qualities in the young employees who hover around his desk.
But the younger characters feel less textured and more self-conscious. All the boxes are carefully ticked; there’s the posh and self-entitled chap, the sensitive lad and the savvy girl. But when the three banter together it feels too clinical, the manufactured punchlines landing rather heavily. I think the ‘comedy’ tagline has slightly scuppered Kirkwood here, dragging her characters away from her sensitive grasp.
It’s when the characters steer away from the comedy that Kirkwood’s writing begins to feel more original and true. Sensitive Sam (Sacha Darwan) might be a tad cliched but his impassioned defence of his privacy makes a real man of him. And when the father of the 14-year-old topless girl storms into the office, the scene becomes so much thicker and the writing less cosseted. Kevin Doyle is brilliant as the confused and angry father and, when he describes his ‘funny wriggly’ kid, it feels like Kirkwood is finally writing not for the comedy or for the context but for herself.