“it’s a refreshing change, really, to find a musical that doesn’t shy away from unpleasant truths of contemporary life”
Public Domain is the Southwark Playhouse’s latest production, live streamed from the theatre so that we can view it safely in our own homes. It’s a peppy, up to the minute, musical take on the joys and pitfalls of social media. And appropriately, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the whole piece is performed by just two actors, Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke. Clarke and Forristal also wrote this piece, taking as their inspiration, words and composite characters posting on social media over the last year.
The show opens with a couple of everyday millennials enthusing about the joys of Facebook. They’re looking for connections—with just about anyone. “Just like that we felt a little less alone” they sing, and ironic tone apart, much of the theme of Public Domain seems to be focused on this generation’s fears of not getting enough attention. The show ranges from deftly amplified scenes portraying vloggers on Youtube talking about the anxiety of posting enough, to uneasy musings about whether they would really be better off on Instagram. Francesca Forristal’s manic vlogger is particularly well done, and nicely contrasts with Jordan Paul Clarke’s perennially depressed one, wondering aloud whether all this soul baring to the camera is just free therapy.
All this manic depressive zeal can’t last, of course, and Public Domain soon starts examining the more problematic side of social media. Who manages, and thus controls, all this deeply personal data? Forristal and Clarke switch to American accents, and in an instant, Mark Zuckerberg, earnest CEO of Facebook, and his equally earnest physician wife, Priscilla Chan, are on stage singing “how lucky we are”. Their fervent declaration that “Tomorrow is gonna be better than today” seems unlikely, however, given that their portrayal of happy family life is in-terspersed with scenes of Congress grilling Zuckerberg on rights to privacy. How safe (and how true) is all that data that people upload onto Facebook? From themes of Fake News and data misuse, Public Domain takes an easy leap from Youtube, Facebook and Instagram into the unglued an-tics of TikTok. As Clarke gives us a musical tour of this new social media app, Matt Powell’s video wizardry superimposes TikTok examples on Clarke’s performance. This is a departure from projecting onto a simple backdrop on stage, as one would during a conventional production, and it works quite well. It is, indeed, just one example in Public Domain where the creative team become mothers of invention through the necessity of having to live stream theatre.
Public Domain is a bold attempt at a new kind of theatre forged in irony for our uncertain times. Its sparse lines are seen throughout with a cut down cast, economical direction (Adam Lenson) and in set and costume design (Libby Todd). The songs and lyrics allow more extravagance of expression, but most of the work in this show is carried on the capable shoulders of Clarke and Forristal. And it’s a refreshing change, really, to find a musical that doesn’t shy away from unpleasant truths of contemporary life, even while it celebrates the madness of our angst ridden era.
“There are quite a few pandemic jokes, and also pee and vomit jokes for all the boys in the audience—rapturously received”
Potted Panto, written by Daniel Clarkson, Jefferson Turner and Richard Hurst, is up at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End this year. It premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010, and then transferred to London’s Vaudeville Theatre to much acclaim. It’s a lively two hander, directed by Hurst and starring Clarkson and Turner, with some additional help from the backstage crew. From the brilliant back and forth banter of the two leading men, to the suggestions of a set and quick change costumes, it is easy to imagine these actors barnstorming any variety show over the last one hundred years or so.
But traditional pantomime, this is not. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen to that. Audience and actor safety means that large casts have been mothballed, and performers socially distanced for the time being. Potted Panto’s small cast means less risk to the actors and audiences, though whether the Garrick Theatre, with its cramped nineteenth century proportions, is the ideal space, remains to be seen. Potted Panto’s approach doesn’t impact the number of characters, however. It keeps the title characters, while adding others in ways that are certainly creative, but distracting. (Abanazar Scrooge?) Prince Charming survives—although he turns up, and turns out, to be the same character whether he’s in Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella, or The Christmas Carol.
Panto needs a good plot, however, and Potted Panto’s overarching plot, for all the cleverness of the writing, is slender. It’s basically about two actors who want to do as many pantos as they can in seventy minutes. There’s a lot of comic material deftly presented as Clarkson and Turner go back and forth about what constitutes a genuine panto. (Spoiler alert: Sleeping Beauty counts, the Queen’s Christmas speech does not.) But because there are really only two performers, the actors have to do a lot of work arounds with the stories of the pantos that do make the list. Mostly these consist of exposition, and a lot of physical exercise, particularly on the part of Jefferson Turner, as he rushes on and off stage, changing costumes on the fly.
Potted Panto does have a lot of crowd pleasing moments. Adults, in particular, will enjoy the references to contemporary politics. To Clarkson, Turner and Hurst, Dick Whittington is really about a journalist who becomes Mayor of London and then prime minister, and a dishevelled blond wig is used to marvellous effect. There are quite a few pandemic jokes, and also pee and vomit jokes for all the boys in the audience—rapturously received. Clarkson and Turner are at ease with their audience, even when the response is a bit unexpected. The
actors make the most of opportunities to get audiences on their feet shouting “Oh no, he isn’t” and singing along. The handling of audience participation was particularly inspired as Turner picked on a good sport in the audience to be Prince Charming’s true love, and then just ran with it. (Hint: Cinderella is in for a bit of a shock.)
When all’s said and done with this seasonal offering, Potted Panto is likely to please adults more than the kids. There’s always some adult entertainment in even the most child friendly panto, of course, but Potted Panto edges more in the direction of the grown ups. Enjoy at your own risk.