BUSH THEATRE UNTIL 26 JUNE 2021
WRITER: PHOEBE ECLAIR POWELL
DIRECTOR: ATRI BANERJEE
CAST: KELLY GOUGH
REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY
Kelly Gough gives a spirited performance as a nameless, lonely, thirtysomething estate agent in Phobe Eclair Powell’s Harm. And Lee Curran’s lighting design is superb, transforming an essentially barren stage, except for a giant bunny, into a mirror of the protagonist’s mind. The darker her desires become, the larger and deeper the shadows grow.
As the title suggests, the interior and exterior world of Harm are bleak. The narrator watches passionate pigeons on her windowsill for something to do, her estate agent boss Barry is a sleaze ball, and the two people who want her in their life - her father and stepmother - are blemished by the fact her stepmother Cassie was a childhood friend, two years above her at school.
Into this arena of disappointment comes influencer Alice who, in the absence of Barry, our narrator shows around a £2 million house. When Alice puts her Insta account into the estate agent’s phone and presses ‘follow’, what would be a weightless encounter in cyberspace, turns into an increasingly bruising one in real life.
As everybody who enjoyed Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West (2017) will know, when civilians infiltrate the realm of popular influencers, the results trend toward cataclysmic. But before a wrecking ball is taken to Alice’s picture perfect life of pizza ovens and Kilner jars, we do get to meet some astutely drawn supporting characters with Alice’s husband Daniel, who is trying to score a deal with a protein drink brand, and yoga influencer IzzyBeBright. Daniel and Izzy are far more openly contemptuous of ‘that fucking estate agent’ than Alice.
Running parallel to the narrator’s real life stalking of Alice from farmers’ market to yoga studio to party, is her involvement in "Tittle", an online forum simultaneously obsessed and enraged by influencers. ‘I became SadBitch 11, because there were ten sad bitches ahead of me.’ As long as she can offer scoops on Alice’s ‘real’ life, her star rises, but once her access runs dry, Tittle becomes as arid and critical as the influencers it critiques.
Harm ends with the devastation of Alice and the narrator’s lives. I struggled with the hospital stalking section, as my experience of NHS maternity wards is they have Fort Knox style security. Perhaps this is an event that only happened in the narrator’s imagination, and should not be taken too literally. With life experienced through the prism of social media, it becomes hard to tell them apart.
Harm is an insightful exploration of promoted envy and self loathing, but because that exploration is tied to a take on social media, whose inherently febrile nature date stamps each performance, the full impact is little blunted. It is a testament to Kelly Gough’s performance that she is able to power against this current, and land her audience safely on the other side.