Blush | Scorch | Travesty

Matt Trueman reviews: Blush (4 stars) | Scorch (4 stars) | Travesty (2 stars)

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Published 09 Aug 2016

Thirty thousand views means sixty thousand eyes; all of them on her body, not one with permission to look. Her older sister wants to stamp on every single one, to feel them burst beneath her feet. That’s the reality of revenge porn.

At least, it’s one of them. Charlotte Josephine’s second play—Bitch Boxer won her a Fringe First—shows many sides of its subject: the father who can’t stop looking; the ingénue seeking a confidence boost; the shopper getting cockshots in Sainsbury's. Each has their own reasons, and their own distinctive voice – and Blush never blames individuals, but it doesn’t excuse them either.

Instead, Josephine goes after the system. In New York, an “experience designer” gives a TED Talk: the best ways to boost up your app. The key lies in gamification: reward regular use, keep ‘em coming back. Dopamine does the rest. Onstage, a bell dings out every incoming message. Pavlov’s dogs are alive and well.

Through these five interlinked stories—all with real pulse—Josephine builds a multifaceted argument. She shows how social media plays on—preys on—our hang-ups and vanities, and James Turner turns the stage into a photographer’s studio, with Seth Rook Williams’ camera lights giving the actors gloss and glow. But also how safe the virtual world seems – airbrushing reality, easing communication and providing a crowd to hide behind. For all the violence victims feel when they go viral, Josephine makes clear that there’s often no one to blame, no justice to be had and no way of stopping it.

Ed Stambollouian’s production finds a similar momentum and, as it speeds up, its stories and characters (Josephine and Daniel Foxsmith double up) start to blur together. They become a mass of people, interchangeable and anonymous, until revenge porn starts to feel like a norm: a fact of life; just one of those things. There’s fury here; fury and shame.

If Blush shows people robbed of their identities, Scorch sees theatre wresting one back. Stacey Gregg’s monologue, first seen at the MAC Belfast last year, is inspired by the case of Justine McNally – the young woman who “tricked” another into bed by masquerading as a man. That’s the media version of events, anyway.

Gregg proves realities can be more complex. Kes goes by her online avatar’s name, one that feels free enough to fly in. Having met Jules in-game, she sticks with it – first on Skype, then in person, turning up in male clothing. The moment to explain never comes.

Not that Kes could, if even they wanted to. Still only 17, they’re gender disoriented: not exactly female, but not necessarily trans either. The law doesn’t deal in such vagaries and, when Kes is charged, it’s with sexual assault by penetration and fraud.

Fraud. Amy McAllister chews the word over like gum. Its implications go beyond a sentence – three years in prison, six on the sex offenders list. The word defines her, imposes a definition on her: a woman masquerading as a man.

Scorch takes its time—or rather lets Kes take their time—allowing complexities and contradictions to coexist. That’s theatre’s greatest asset, and McAllister confides that uncertainty in us at her LGBQT group meetings. Gregg writes with huge understanding for her protagonist, capturing the enormity of teenage emotions, the tumult of emerging identities and the mixed messages sent out by society. How many love stories rely on assumed identities? Why are men in drag funny and women, not?

But Scorch levels up on the subject of language; the way words fall short of the world, yet set the terms on which it works. Gregg skewers the contradictions that result, not least a legal system that lets homophobic murderers off lighter than Kes, and insists that gender be disclosed before sex, but not rape convictions or undercover police work.

McAllister’s mesmeric as Kes, rearranging her body from male shapes to female and back, and nattering away all these words. It’s like she’s trying to define herself before our eyes and, with so many selves on show, you realise why the term ‘they’ makes sense. Identity’s more fluid than ever in the online age, and Emma Jordan’s bare-stage production elides the real and virtual worlds with clever lighting and sounds.

In Travesty, comedian Liam Williams bodychecks the boy meets girl story. Anna and Ben, typical twentysomethings in a typical twentysomething relationship, are each played by actors of the opposite sex. Lydia Larson slaps Pierro Niel-Mee’s arse as he passes. Niel-Mee longs for Larson to commit.

Only, in order to draw attention to gender stereotypes, Travesty replicates them wholesale. Crosscasting flags the clichés—and they’re not without some truth—but it cements the very thing it sets out to subvert. Anna and Ben aren’t people, but amalgams of gender, and since they stand for their sexes, rather than themselves, Williams inadvertently blames gender for everything. It does for drama too. Their relationship is the 'every relationship', from first flush to ‘we’re finished’. Staple irritations grow into regular rows with grinding predictability. In no time at all, it drags.