Reviews Bristol Published 17 November 2014


Bristol Old Vic ⋄ 12-15, 18-22 November 2014

The surveillance of the population.

Rosemary Waugh

It takes talent to play a likable character and to get the audience to back that person throughout a production.  Yet it takes even more talent – or that special something – to perform with absolute validity a truly unlikeable one.  The character the audience viscerally loathe and want to see get their comeuppance.  In solo[solo] Philip Perry did such a remarkable job of performing a deeply flawed and perhaps irredeemable character that I had to restrain an urge to swing a Doc Martin artfully into his skull when his head happened to be posed close to the end of my toes.

If the point of theatre is to provoke a reaction in the audience – a reaction that then keeps them awake at night trying to figure out what exactly was going on in the production – then solo[solo] was a great piece of theatre.  But it was also a piece of theatre that was very hard to like in an uncomplicated fashion for two reasons: the nastiness of the central character (and in a one-man show there is nowhere else to look but him) and several inconsistencies in the plot itself.

In solo[solo] we meet Finn somewhere, it is not entirely clear where, but it is perhaps out yonder on a moor.  He has his brand new North Face cagoule and his brand new minty fresh polo shirt and the two other items modern life tells us will see you through any bad situation, a banana and a yoga mat.  The crisp newness of all of Finn’s belongings and clothing tells us a lot about the character.  This is not a man who seeks solace in items which have a history to them, such as comfy old walking boots – the boots that you trust in because they have served you well for years before hand.  No, Finn has to have everything new because he hates the past with the same intensity that I end up feeling for him.

Finn works for the Intelligence Services, and here the first oddities about the production arise.  He is obviously a very ‘disturbed individual’, someone with an unstable mind.  He is such an overt weirdo, that it seems incongruous that he should be employed by an organisation which specifically vets applicants for having robust mental health (have a go at applying to MI6 if you doubt this).  Whilst undergoing training to join up, one of the people training him dons a nasty military persona and throws up damaging information at Finn in a bid to prove how good they are at Knowing Everything About You and to shock Finn into submission.  The killer piece of information – worse even than them telling the whole room that he’s a virgin – is that he is actually adopted and his parents never told him.

Finding out he is adopted blows everything out of Finn’s brain.  As we start to find out via the long monologue he is recording out here in his cycling shorts, Finn had an almost hysterically happy childhood. His family unit of mother, father, sister and brother was the whole happy world to him, and their caravanning trips each year were marked with the creation of a family motto in Latin and a flag to fly it on.  The only thing that interrupts this ideal of lashings and lashings of ginger beer in a Cornish resort is the disturbing fact that he is actually in love with his sister. The monologue he now records, years later, is addressed to her, so that she can begin to understand his actions and what ended up happening to the family.

Finn reacts by using the Intelligence Service’s surveillance technology to monitor and destruct his family.  He does this mainly by hacking into their Internet accounts and, most likely, iCloud accounts and sending a naked selfie his sister took and sent to a boyfriend, from his father’s account to his mother.  So basically he supplants his own incestuous feelings by making it looks like it is actually his father committing these actions.  And so it ensures that the parents get divorced and slide into alcoholism and despair and eventually suicide, with – the now entirely estranged and in hiding – Finn helping along the way with blocking bank accounts and other malicious actions.

There are many things that make the plot untenable, like the fact the picture of the daughter is a selfie she took, not an image that a father would have sneakily taken of her.  Why she doesn’t say anything about recognising the image or having taken it herself is a mystery, as is the general ‘technology’ used by Finn – who confusingly also records all of this on a cassette tape despite being privy to things invented after 1970.

A lot of the methods of surveillance Finn uses seem unbelievable as, in particular, does the idea that some lacky in the Intelligence Services could comfortably hack and freeze someone’s bank account without the bank stopping this and it being severely questioned why this employee is wasting tax payers’ money getting back at his mother instead of doing his job.  Presumably this kind of surveillance is meant to be used to track down people like ISIS (an organisation with the same name as an Egyptian goddess who fittingly – and this may be of interest to Finn – married her own brother).

This is meant to be a play discussing the horrors of mass surveillance, but it falls short of doing so through providing examples of surveillance that do not and would not exist or be allowed to take place.  For all of GCHQ’s sins, I do not believe that their offices are full of people acting out grudges or childhood traumas by, say, monitoring a man having a wank over their sister’s selfie.

The other, bigger, problem is that Finn’s reaction to finding out he is adopted is completely disproportionate and mean.  Finding out you are adopted is potentially destabilising, and yet of all the things to happen to a person it doesn’t warrant his deliberate destruction of a group of people who, by his own admission, gave him nothing but love and care during his childhood.  Contrast this, for instance with the Lars Von Trier film Festen, in which the main character sets out to publically implode a family unit and the myth of happiness that surrounds them.  In that scenario, the audience feel nothing but sympathy and support for the protagonist who is trying to finally get retribution against his disgusting father who abused him and his sister as children, resulting in her suicide.

If, then, the main character is horrible and the plot slightly shaky, what could this production have been about?  solo[solo] was born out of a Guardian Poll asking the Edward Snowden’s question ‘the surveillance of whole populations rather than individuals threatens to be the greatest human rights challenge of out time.  Do you agree?’ (78% of self-selecting replies did).  The play could be taken as a metaphor for how mass surveillance of this kind destroys the ‘family’ of society.  But this only works if you take the deeply cynical view that those in control of the technology will ultimately act like Finn and use the equipment to act on disproportionate personal vendettas to the information gathered.

Maybe here we have the crux of why the production seemed so very unedifying.  It had at its centre sorrow, depression, malice and the basic idea that advances in technology (in all areas, not just surveillance) are going to be the death of us all.  Which is a damn stupid statement when you consider that it is literally technology that is also keeping us all alive so long and providing us with far more opportunities in life than working down the local mill spinning wool all day.  Mass surveillance is definitely an unanswered philosophical and moral concern, but when people start getting hysterical about how and why it could be used, up pops the image of a crusty Victorian waving his walking stick in anger at the approaching steam train he ultimately cannot stop.


Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

solo[solo] Show Info

Directed by Sita Calvert-Ennals

Written by Samuel E. Taylor

Cast includes Philip Perry




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