Review by Harry Bower
Crystal and Carleen could be two internet obsessed pals in their early twenties literally anywhere in the UK. Convinced that consistency and honesty is key to growing their audience on vlogging platform ‘WePipe’, the pair are organically developing their following with regular videos chewing the fat. At first it seems all is equal in this partnership, though the differences in ambition soon come to the fore. Crystal is keen on making it big as an internet celebrity, while Carleen just needs enough money to prevent her having to read another automated job interview rejection email.
As ‘C+C’ dig themselves a deeper hole to find more engagement, they employ more risky methods. Live streams and reaction videos create a lethal combination for someone with a propensity to speak their mind without thinking first, and soon they find themselves at risk of being cancelled. When a previously dismissed shady new social platform begins advertising to attract new content creators, promising a share of revenue for short viral clips based on views and shares, C+C jump ship and sign up. Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, Simon and Garfunkel, the Gallagher brothers; as with all famous duos before them, Crystal and Carleen’s relationship breaks down and soon they go their separate ways.
FLIP! is relentlessly consistent in its dragging of social media and the world in which we live in today, where filters create the faces and bodies we all wish we had, and attention is prized above all else. It pulls back the curtain of influencer celebrity and muses thoughtfully on why such status is so irresistibly attractive to so many, while successfully satirising our internet world to hilarious effect. The laughs keep coming even when things get dark, because the piece is unapologetically reflective of reality, where fake apology videos and internet-challenge deaths are rife. It manages to achieve all of this parody and social commentary while remaining warm and somehow endearing us to both of the characters at the story’s core, even when they are unlikable in themselves.
That’s partly down to the stellar performances. Leah St Luce’s Carleen is uncompromisingly energetic while measured and quietly calculating. Jadesola Odunjo’s plays Crystal with wonderful sass and boundless enthusiasm. Both actors do a fantastic job of portraying a sense of fragile vulnerability and skin-deep ego present in all of us, particularly when our lives are projected online. The impressive multi-roling throughout proves beyond doubt that these two performers are masters at crafting distinctive characters. Despite the frantic sometimes erratic jumping between characters, locations and time periodsare never unclear.
The use of props is cleverly symbolic, as are the very straightforward outfits worn for the entire piece by both performers. It’s the sound design by Eliyana Evans which really shines through – with genius bleeping, voiceover, and other sound effects used to genuinely astonishing impact; I frequently found myself mentally commenting at how impressive the timing and execution of the production is. The direction of the piece is another big reason for its success. What a delight to see another piece at Soho Theatre directed by Emily Aboud. Having seen their utterly superb production of Splintered earlier this year, and having heard great things about Lady Dealer in Edinburgh, I was excited to read of their involvement with FLIP!. I wasn’t let down. Emily’s direction is sharp, at times anarchic in the best and most energetic of ways, and delivers just enough pause for thought before again ratcheting up the pace. It’s because the direction is so on-the-ball that the seventy minutes or so whizzes by in a blur of make-up palettes and halo mirrors.
Author Racheal Ofori clearly understands social media and its hold over young people deeply. FLIP! not only explores the simple yet deadly transactional relationship between creator and platform, but by introducing artificial intelligence into the discussion begins to theorise on the future too. It’s done in a smart way which doesn’t push beyond the boundaries of relatable possibility, instead taking what we already know (deepfakes, AI avatars, voices) and packaging it into something realistic and believable, if still terrifying.
As you follow the lives and friendship journey of the protagonists it’s not hard to see yourself in them too. For example, if you would ask me now about artificial intelligence impersonating me in writing this review, I’d tell you it might compromise the integrity of my voice. If you told me in six months though,that the AI programme could write exactly like me, I’d be paid thousands of pounds for a review I haven’t written, and I could essentially retire while still benefit from fame and fortune…well – I’m not saying I’d dismiss it immediately, let’s put it that way. And that is fundamentally the point of FLIP! – flipping not just in name, but in the nature of the discussions and commentary in the piece; it provokes discussion and debate within the minds of its audience whilst still serving as a very entertaining bit of theatre.
Perhaps that is actually the show’s biggest achievement. It works on so many levels and will appeal to so many. As well as it being relatable and easy to watch, it has deeper meaningand relevant moral dilemma. There’s wonderful music, hilarious physical theatre and brilliant jokes which only punch up. There’s a tangible and deep story of friendship sat neatly alongside effective social commentary. Not all of the jokes will land for everyone; and that’s okay. What most impressed me is that Ofori didn’t strive for a hopeful, optimistic, happy ending. Without ruining it, instead Carleen and Crystal end up exactly where you presume they would be; with very little change and no certainty on the future. It’s that lack of clarity which in the end, ironically, is the thing which gives us hope. There’s still time to FLIP! things on their head.
FLIP! plays at Soho Theatre until Saturday 25 November2023. For more information and tickets visit https://sohotheatre.com/events/flip/
Photos by Tristram Kenton