Lion and Unicorn Theatre
Reviewed – 10th February 2019
“the show is so busy trying to shout about how controversial and important it is that it disregards actually saying anything of meaning”
Calf 2 Cow’s mission statement for BackPAGE on their programme sets the scene for an intellectually and emotionally provocative piece of theatre that pushes boundaries and deepens the audience’s perspectives on important issues. Unfortunately, these lofty aims are left unfulfilled by promising design that is let down by a vague and naive script from Matt Emeny.
BackPAGE follows the story of Lucky (Holly Fripp), a girl from SmallTown who gets embroiled in the sex trafficking schemes of La Pa (Michael Difford) and Scab (Colleen Hedley) in a trip to BigCity. The plot appears to riff off Alice in Wonderland as Lucky arrives in a strange world and is bandied around from situation to situation, but it lacks the specificity and detail in the world it’s trying to create to feel coherent; it contains too much absurdity to be the realistic, but never sets out the logic on which this created world operates. As such, the status quo of the world, its rules, and the consequences of actions feel muddy and undefined.
The show features a wealth of in-yer-face-esque moments containing violence, sexual assault, and other depictions designed to discomfort the audience, but they feel devoid of heft as they often give the impression of being provocative for provocation’s sake, and not to lend gravitas to deeply important issues. BackPAGE’s claim of interrogating the everyday horrors of sex trafficking feels hollow when the show appears more concerned with shocking the audience with its style than with its substance, and subsequently comes across as under-researched, exploitative, and naive to the sensitivity required in portraying such serious subject matter. This is evident in the script’s treatment of its female characters – specifically Lucky, who spends a significant portion of the play in just her underwear, and possesses almost no agency, instead always serving as a subject to someone else’s agenda and never having one of her own to pursue.
BackPAGE has a woman-centric issue displayed here through a male gaze, which is personified fully in the character of La Pa – an elite who abuses his power and privilege in heinous ways, who is never challenged, nor ever faces any negative consequences for his actions as part of a system perpetuating disturbing problems.
As La Pa, Difford appears to be having a little too much fun in his performance, heightening the sense of obliviousness to the subject matter found in the script, but other performances do help greatly to add a sense of weight to the writing. Tommy Carmichael is immensely energetic and engrossing as Lucky’s boyfriend as well as her father, and Fripp as Lucky manages to bring elements of distress and humanity to a story that feels in dire need of it.
It’s a shame that the writing wasn’t more mature and sensitive, as BackPAGE pulls off a number of elements with aplomb; Emeny’s direction and design make each scene feel unique with a minimalistic and inventively utilised set, that with the help of Connor Sullivan’s lighting paint a number of environments swiftly and effectively. However, these aspects don’t achieve their full effect as the show is so busy trying to shout about how controversial and important it is that it disregards actually saying anything of meaning.
Reviewed by Jake Moran
Photography courtesy Calf 2 Cow
Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 13th February
Previously reviewed at this venue: