Romcoms make my toes curl and this isn’t restricted to bland glossy films with Jennifer Aniston in. No amount of whimsy or irony can reconcile me to the sight of boy meeting girl, on a trajectory that’s as accident-beset but sure as the path of a wheel of hard cheese rolling down a Gloucestershire hill.
So that this new play from Dublin company Malaprop Theatre won me round so conclusively feels like a testament to a deftness that its name (as charmingly clumsy as any self-respecting romcom heroine) wouldn’t suggest. Its author Dylan Coburn Gray has created an ingenious frame to bring online dating to the stage: not futuristic and neon, but weirdly retro. The couple stand on each end of the stage, their messages presented to each other by a geeky ‘60s style secretary in specs (played by the brilliantly expressive Aoife Spratt), who blushes into her filing cabinet or thumps it in fury as they bombard each other with awkward advances, memes, links, or ill-chosen words.
It’s an approach that feels totally, implausibly right. I’ve seen faltering attempts at doing the internet on stage that are all neon outlines and futuristic music. They don’t work, because online communication is embedded in our lives now, and it’s nothing like being in Cyberdog. We make it in our own images, which aren’t magically divorced from history and the past, so that in the hands of the average awkward user, online dating can be Hampstead Heath after dark or ladies’ night at a cheesy club or, like here, something like an old-school marriage bureau crossed with those notes you used to pass in lessons – a world of silliness and desperation and dreams filed away in dry corporate order.
We only meet Blackcatfishmusketeer’s central couple after Catherine Russell and Ste Murray act out a hilarious stampede of rapid-fire, abortive attempts at connection, a minute sample of all the millions of possible relationships that theirs kills the moment it starts. They’re an endearing pair, with mundane jobs and an analytical, sciencey bent that turns inwards on their own evolving relationship. Dylan Coburn Gray’s script perfectly captures the wit, self-deprecation and (as an undercurrent) cynical pragmatism that online dating has embedded into romance. This couple charm each other, but can’t trust each other. Their flirting comes to revolve around a philosophical problem: the way that they can only define each other by what they aren’t, which is exactly what they need. They’re dancing around each other, equally terrified of loneliness and of being let down.
In director Claire O’Reilly’s hands, it’s satisfyingly, remorsely pacy – sometimes I was longing for an imaginary remote control to pause their conversation and catch up. But its a play that rewards your concentration with an endless stream of sharp, hyper-specific jokes (I particularly liked the dig at North Greenwich), and a realism about the dull, or awkward, or painful bits of loving someone.
If I was being picky I could say that this romance can feel a little passionless – that its lovers are so smart that they could be the creations of the same fiendishly eloquent, millennial-speak savvy supercomputer. But I don’t want to be, because this is satisfying, lovable stuff, with a stilted friction built into it that’s entirely human. And, crucially, its ending that feels anything but inevitable.
BlackCatfishMusketeer is on at Summerhall until August 27th, book tickets here.