The Win Bin, Old Red Lion

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I have several friends who’ve recently graduated and are currently in the soul-destroying process of trying to get into the arts. We have a lot of conversations that go a bit like this:

“How’s it all going?”
“Oh it’s OK, I’ve just been doing this internship with [insert arts organisation].”
“That sounds like a great opportunity. Is it paid?”
“No, it’s not. Well, they pay travel, but …”
“That’s a bit shit. But it could open some doors I guess.”
“Yeah. I’m also doing this show at [insert theatre]. It’s only profit-share, and it’s costing me a fortune to get there and back – plus I’m knackered from the day job – but maybe it will lead to something else …”

You get the idea.

This is the culture that The Win Bin skewers. Set in a future dystopia, but taking aim at present day problems, Kate Kennedy and Sara Joyce’s show imagines a Britain in which there is just one remaining arts job. Competition, as you’d expect, is fierce. In a cross between The X Factor and The Apprentice, six shortlisted candidates fight it out for the prize: not a recording contract or six-figure salary, but a toe in the fast-closing door of the arts sector. Oh, and it’s not even paid.

Switching rapidly between roles as the six desperate would-be artists, Kennedy and fellow performer Wilf Scolding (both real comic talents) stand in for a whole army of desperate job-hunters, willing to do anything for a break. They sing. They dance. They screw each other over. Because in this constantly surveilled nightmare of ruthless individualism, there can only be one winner. And if you can manufacture a sob story along the way, then all the better.

It sounds brutal, but there’s a surreal, comic edge to these frantically competing characters, most of whom are as dotty as Bethany Wells’ spare but striking set design. Two of the candidates are exes, torn between revenge and lingering affection, and each with a dizzying range of foibles. One hopeful specialises in live taxidermy; another claims that his calves are his secret weapon. In a series of short, sometimes skit-like scenes, they make increasingly ridiculous attempts to outdo one another, responding to the cryptic, impossible demands of an unseen judging panel. It’s occasionally clunky, but mostly hilarious.

As entertaining as all the wackiness is, though, it’s the more subdued opening and closing moments of the show that really stick in the memory. Bash (played by Kennedy), the awkward and anxious protagonist of the piece, is in interview mode, blinking nervously into the single bright shaft of light that falls across the stage as she clumsily reaches for the elusive “right” answers. The desperation is tangible. And it’s in this situation, so depressingly recognisable to a generation of young people, that the laughter begins to die away.

Photo: Alex D Fine.

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WINK, Theatre503

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Originally written for Exeunt.

What if you could become somebody else? As part of Battersea Arts Centre’s Scratch Online programme, artist Deborah Pearson is currently working on a digital project called Another You, which asks just that question. For one participant, the artwork offers a glimpse into an alternate life; a digital collage of paths not taken and things that might have been.

WINK explores a similar possibility. Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s debut play incorporates two generations of digital natives: the twenty-something teacher, who measures his life through his Facebook profile, and the teenage student whose after-school existence is lived almost entirely online. John is already discontented and nostalgic, indulging in a miserable affair and clicking through photographs from his university days. Mark just wants to get away, away from school and family and the grief that seeps poisonously through his home life.

These two characters’ lives, connected only in the most superficial of ways, come crashing together online. Jealous of what he believes to be his teacher’s perfect lifestyle – job, girlfriend, holidays – Mark invents a toned and loaded Facebook alter-ego: the brilliantly (and perhaps knowingly) named Tim Walker, lover of cat memes, Banksy and The Inbetweeners. Believing the fabricated Tim to be everything he isn’t, John accepts him as a friend on his girlfriend’s Facebook account and proceeds to pose as the woman Mark fantasises about. Without knowing it, both men are talking to lies.

Eclair-Powell and director Jamie Jackson have John and Mark tell their stories directly to the audience, only occasionally acknowledging one another’s presence on the small stage. Each is alienated from the other and from the outside world, to a dangerous and unpleasant degree in the case of Leon Williams’ laddish and frequently unlikeable John, while the disconnection of Sam Clemmett’s Mark has a lonely, mournful edge. For both of them, the online world is becoming more real than its physical counterpart. Their desire for intimacy is palpable but frustrated.

As ever, the internet proves difficult to represent on stage. Plenty have tried to engage theatrically with this shaping force of 21st-century life, but too often these attempts are strained and quickly dated, while those that do succeed tend to eschew technology altogether and rely on theatre’s analogue qualities – think Chris Goode’s Hippo World Guest Book. Jackson’s production turns to choreography, recruiting movement director Isla Jackson-Ritchie to conjure an abstract virtual environment with just the bodies of the two performers. Inside Bethany Wells’ sleek, white, Apple-esque design, Williams and Clemmett twist and turn, arms swiping through an online cornucopia of content.

At times, this device is striking. In a moment of online confrontation, each character concealed inside an internet alias, the choreography pulses with aggression; later, as Mark encounters the internet’s uglier side, Clemmett reels from imaginary punches, the online world delivering invisible body blows. More often, though, the movement feels separate from the rest of the production, tacked on rather than integral. There’s occasionally a similar feeling of effort in the text’s allusions to the online world, as though Eclair-Powell were racking up points for each social network or internet craze given a fleeting mention – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, Snapchat.

In the end, it’s all just a little too contrived, neglecting both character and plausibility in order to make its points. The play’s climax, instead of providing the high drama it’s so clearly aiming at, feels overblown and unlikely. In trying so hard to be about the internet, WINK – like John and Mark – loses its way in the online labyrinth.