Tom has just got a new job – a cause for celebration, right? Maybe not in this case, because Tom’s job isn’t like most other jobs. Tom’s new job in data analysis will consist mainly of him combing through thousands of different websites, searching for inappropriate content: namely, child pornography.
Luke Owen’s play – winner of the Papatango Prize – sets out to critique the mindset of a person who takes on this soul-destroying task, while also providing an examination of contemporary working life.
Georgia Lowe’s intelligent set is deceptive in its dullness. Her design sees drab “office” carpeting creeping up the walls, and onto every available surface. The office is always with us. This concept is brilliantly aided by John Hodgkinson’s portrayal of Nidge, Tom’s mentor at work, the man who guides him through the technical mundanity and emotional turmoil of the job along with the necessary coping mechanisms of sarcasm, passive aggression and false positivity.
The new everywhere-office is something the internet has helped create, and Tom’s new job is not different from any other office job, at least in terms of his tedious surroundings; it is different because of the content he views, content that is not specific to his physical location, but ever present in the internet ether. Anyone who owns a smartphone is guilty of bringing the office home with them – but how does one cope if “the office” means mentally scarring images of children being abused?
Dealing with these issues, opens up a major theatrical question – how to present the Internet on stage? This is not a new question, it’s one that must have been asked a lot since the mid 90s, but the representation of virtual elements of contemporary culture on stage, or even on film, is so often awkwardly conceived. Justin Audibert’s production makes no attempt to show the audience any of what Tom’s viewing; he looks at the screen, and we watch him watching – this leaves space for exploring the psychological effects of Tom’s work, and indeed of online worlds.
The mental consequences of the job are eloquently shown through Tom’s flourishing new relationship with the adorable Emily – adorable in every way – she works with kids, wears pink penguin pajamas and sleeps with a teddy bear. For Tom, who spends his days searching for evidence of pedophilia, this proves problematic. Ronan Raftery and Eleanor Wyld do a great job of creating palpable chemistry on stage, but their evident chemistry cannot overcome the effects Tom’s work are starting to have on him.
The nature of their relationship leads to some interesting observations about the infantilization of women in contemporary culture. Owen holds child abuse up as the most evil of human actions, which seems paradoxical in a world where Topshop boasts lingerie lines covered in cartoon characters from our childhoods – how can we reasonably discuss child abuse, when grown women happily wear Moomin underwear? The play deals with this issue strongly, as Emily tries to make herself more appealing sexually by getting a full bikini wax, and is hurt and baffled by Tom’s responses.
Though, most of the time the psychological scrutiny is very strong, the attempts to understand Tom as a character are less so. Most of the time, Tom doesn’t want to talk about his feelings, leaving us to examine the subtext. However, when he finally does speak his mind to his colleague, or his girlfriend, his words start to sound unnatural. When Tom discusses the problem of “caring” too much with his co-worker, he becomes didactic. When he does discuss the issues more overtly, he becomes less convincing as a character; his motivation to work there in the first place also feels underexplored, given the life-changing consequences.
This remains an intelligent production, one which presents us with a world we can all recognize. The direction, design and performances all work incredibly well together, taking a seemingly very personal and isolated situation and blowing it up in a way that shows how we are all privy to similar destruction.