Blink, Soho Theatre

The human eyeball is a lot like a single lens reflex camera. Both have a lens, a focus, a destination where the picture is formed. In the same way, love – at least for Phil Porter’s pair of charmingly strange characters – has a lot in common with voyeurism. The initial jolt of something like recognition, long periods of watching and yearning, a gradual descent into familiar comfort.

Watching is central to Porter’s off-kilter romance, visiting the Soho Theatre fresh from Edinburgh. Sophie feels as though she is slowly disappearing and has a desperate need to be observed. Ever since volunteering as the night watchman for the reclusive religious commune in which he was raised, Jonah likes to watch. It is a match made in Peeping Tom heaven. While playing with the conventions of the rom-com, however, this is distinctly setting itself apart from traditional romantic narratives – less hearts and flowers, more foibles and dysfunction. It is a love story, Jonah is keen to emphasise, but perhaps not the kind we’re used to seeing.

As already established, seeing and being seen are overt themes. A number of Sophie and Jonah’s shared activities involve watching, including a telling level of emotional involvement with a television plot, while it is not insignificant that the most erotically charged moment between them is sparked by an act of joint voyeurism. This atmosphere of covert observation is reflected in Joe Murphy’s direction, which places actors Rosie Wyatt and Harry McEntire at opposite sides of the performance space, stealing looks at one another while directing their separate segments of the same story to the audience. They take turns to watch, switching between spectator and subject, but rarely do their eyes meet in a moment of direct intimacy.

What all this watching hints at, other than a natural human instinct towards nosiness, is rather more interesting. Sophie and Jonah’s relationship, for want of a better description, begins through the mediator of a camera in Sophie’s flat, placing a screen between the pair from the beginning. This immediately leaps out as a symptom of the digital age, an indictment of the lack of real connection engendered by our ultra-connected society, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Although these two characters certainly suffer from an allergy to intimacy, Jonah has been brought up starved of technology, suggesting that our difficulties with relationships and our fondness for the false intimacy of pining from a distance run deeper than the digital sceptics might have us believe.

There is also a link to be drawn between the feeling of being watched and the subtle religious references made by the piece. While Jonah’s fiercely pious upbringing is primarily a source of comedy, the concept of a divine being is not just there for laughs. There is something in Sophie’s poignant desire to be seen that speaks of an inherent impulse to believe in a greater power watching over us, while the knowing adoption of the sort of coincidences typical to the rom-com genre throws around ideas of fate and destiny, once again implied to have more to do with psychological need than any universal master plan.

Far from being the exclusive preserve of a deity who directs our lives, Blink seems to be saying that watching is an intensely human activity. It is also an activity that we as an audience are of course deeply complicit in. This is powerfully felt in a brief moment when Wyatt and McEntire, enacting the joint activity of watching television, sit and stare out at us. What we as an audience are doing, crowded into a dark room with a group of strangers to gawp at a couple of people pretending to be other people for an hour or two, is essentially quite odd, a largely unacknowledged observation that the piece could do more with. In a play so concerned with spectatorship, it neglects to truly dissect the act of spectating that makes the piece possible in the first place.

For all the interest sparked by Porter’s intelligent, multi-layered text, the production is largely made what it is by the appeal of Wyatt and McEntire, in whose hands these weird, lonely characters become almost unbearably endearing. They are both kooky while delicately side-stepping cliche, staying just the right side of twee and occasionally snagging our emotions on moments of gutting, unshowy sadness. If it were possible to capture the overall aesthetic of the performances, they linger somewhere between cute and detached; a sort of dislocated realism that might easily be taken for straightforward naturalistic acting but has just the lightest touch of strangeness.

This strangeness bleeds into Hannah Clark’s set, which begs us to look at it. The Ikea-meets-woodland-meets-kitsch design is made up of a back wall of panels showing a blown-up photograph of a forest scene, a carpet of imitation grass, and a selection of office furniture that is gradually moved around the space. Much can potentially be taken from these intriguing choices, but the most striking comment made by the set is one that is married to this idea of intimacy at a distance. Just as Jonah falls in love with Sophie while watching her on a screen, the “outdoors” that Clark’s design presents us with is pointedly fake and photographic – a distant representation that appears on something very much like a screen.

As much as it eschews the trajectory of the rom-com (how many love stories begin with anecdotes about dissecting eyes or removing teeth?), there are moments when Blink┬átrips up slightly on the tropes it is teasing us with. But just as Porter seems to have relented to the irresistible appeal of his oddball characters and given his audience what they want, this anti-climactic possibility is quietly ripped away. This enchantingly quirky piece is too clever to conform to our expectations, as much as it may flirt with them, but in its subversion it equally takes us by surprise. No jaw-dropping denouement, the final narrative twist is unobtrusive, gentle, with a bleak note of inevitability. It is even sadder for this. A fondant with a heart of bitter chocolate, the beauty of Porter’s creation is that the whimsy is always tempered with something altogether darker.

Blink runs at Soho Theatre until 22nd September at Soho Theatre.

Photo: Sheila Burnett