It may have been an unintended consequence of the set design, but one of my favourite moments in Theatre 503 came before the house lights went down and the action started in this strong debut play by actor John Webber. On the back wall of the stage are two rectangular panels of mirrored glass, side by side, and in full light the audience sees a grotesque, distorted impression of itself. I loved this captivating reminder of how fundamentally weird and disturbing this whole ritual of going to the theatre actually is.
Spiderfly is a psychological thriller that fits a genre mould without lacking originality. The more significant half of the running time is made up of a series of scenes between the central character, Esther (Lia Burge), and Keith (Matt Whitchurch). They sit on chairs at opposite ends of a table that remains in place throughout. At first, the nature of their relationship is unclear, but it gradually emerges that Ether is visiting Keith in prison, where he is serving time for the murder of her sister Rachel – a crime that he denies.
Interspersing these are scenes between Esther and her new love interest, Chris. He’s also played by Whitchurch, in a casting strategy that gives a talented actor a chance to put his acting chops on full display, but isn’t quite used to its potential. After their first date, which takes place in person, the rest of their encounters take place over Skype – with these interactions dramatised by the two actors standing behind the two panels, which become screens.
Chris, a vaguely likeable art-loving posho softboi type, is written and played for laughs, but adds something important to the play’s dynamic. His scenes are a canvas against which we see Esther’s thought process developing – and his unwillingness to understand why she is visiting Chris show us the narrow end of the spectrum of men’s sometimes toxic attitudes. The way Whitchurch flips between two archly opposed personality types is a testament to his own dexterity, as well Kirsty Patrick Ward’s slick direction. (While her part must be far less fun to play than Whitchurch’s, Burge is also great.)
The title, while apparently also the name of a creature that lives on Fraggle Rock (look it up), in this case stems from one of Keith’s conversation topics: he likes spiders, and he keeps one – but he also thinks some people are like spiders, and others are like flies, and there is nothing either can do about it.
I find myself – as I’m sure Webber intended – envisaging Esther, unable to let go of her sister, as a fly drawn into the trap of a predator. We know his incarceration means he’s not a physical risk, but the signs are that things will end badly. Meanwhile, Esther’s blossoming romance with Chris is hampered; he’s not taking it seriously enough, but it’s her unhealthy fixation on Keith that proves the biggest roadblock.
It’s a red herring though, and Spiderfly offers a brilliant final scene that flips the dynamic between Esther and Keith and culminates with a truly frightening moment in which Keith’s violent potential is revealed. Ultimately this is a story about male violence, and the rage that can be provoked by being slighted or humiliated. It’s a story informed by the adage, attributed to Margaret Atwood, that “men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” But it is also one about a women with the courage and intelligence to secure for herself the justice the court system was not able to provide – and it’s this aspect of Esther’s character that gives the play a denouement that is both so satisfying and alarming.
There are some aspects of Webber’s script that feel unedited: both Esther and Keith have family backgrounds that are treated as highly significant but are not explored sufficiently. But where Webber definitely has something going is in writing dialogue that is just slightly… off. There’s actually quite a lot of humour, but it’s always jarring; absurd laughs crop up at totally inappropriate moments. Webber has shown here he can create something distinctive and involving from a relatively straightforward concept, and he has the potential to write brilliant stuff if he can apply the same style to more ambitious ideas.
Spiderfly is on at Theatre 503 till Sunday 30th November. More info here.