The brilliant Southwark Playhouse has been a hub for new musicals over the past few years. While they may not be able to have an audience in the venue at the moment, that isn't stopping them from keeping the content up with a series of shows streamed live from the venue. The latest is Public Domain which was originally due to stream last month but good things come to those who wait... and wait we did, but more on that later.
The concept of Public Domain is very intriguing. Conceived and performed by Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke, the show boasts itself as "Black Mirror meets The Social Dilemma". With the unconventional tactic of having every word, line and lyric in the show taken from real social media posts including tweets and YouTube videos, they have managed to craft something chaotic and compelling that is a true reflection of our times.
At times feeling more like a song cycle, the show is held together by the narrative of two teenage influencers Millie and Z. Throughout the piece, we come back to them to see their comparative stories. Throughout these pieces, we see their bravado and ego gradually stripped away to reveal vulnerability and insecurities. The strongest part of this is how current it feels. Using verbatim tweets and social media from the past twelve months creates a reference point to this crazy year we have all had. Talking about privacy issues such as WhatsApp adds to the relevance of today, and thankfully we only have to hear the words "Fake news" *shudder* once early on in the show. The show brings things right up to date with the events that have shaped 2021 so far packs a powerful punch.
Other pieces in the show involve Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg with a rare insight into his family - often with humourous results. Forristal and Clarke show their versatility tackling different characters and accents throughout the 70 minutes, even unexpectedly yet heartwarmingly playing a pair of 93 year olds in a sweet song about people in a retirement home navigating modern technology. While jumping from character to character can seem a little jarring, the two performers handled this perfectly, ensuring we always had a smooth transition.
The show is about technology and is itself very technological. Brilliantly directed and produced by Adam Lenson, it features different video interlacing to mimic platforms such as YouTube and TikTok to genius effect. Unfortunately, it doesn't always go to plan. As this show was streamed live, we got a surprising digital showstop - the timing of which was impeccable, as they had just shown a video of Donald Trump talking about banning TikTok. This created some amusing chatter on Twitter - was it deliberate? Was this in itself a social experiment? Was this proof that Trump ruins everything? When it became apparent this wasn't meant to happen, you couldn't help but laugh at the irony. Things going wrong is always a danger of live theatre - but how these problems are handled is one of the great joys. Jordan Paul Clarke handled this brilliantly when the show returned for its unexpected second act with an amazing improvised segue back into the show, even changing some lyrics to the song we had previously heard the beginning of, proving his professionalism and wit is second to none. Credit must go to the tech wizards who managed to get the show back up. And hey - at least those watching it live had a fun few minutes in the interval.
Public Domain contains some real earworm songs such as "Welcome to TikTok" which, I must warn you, will be stuck in your head all night. The standout in the show was the song 'Rise and Conquer'. Based on the tweets of a vlogger in November 2020, the song talks about the mental health implications these lockdowns have had on so many of us with lyrics such as "A lot of us are feeling broken down". In light of our current situation, I couldn't help but be moved by the sentiment of it. With a build up involving other performers on video screen, the song evoked memories of 'You Will Be Found' from Dear Evan Hansen - another big musical song about mental health issues and the struggle of todays society. Not a bad comparison to havem this really was a beautiful moment in the show.
A beast of a show due to its structure, content and technical reliance, Public Domain managed to pull it out of the bag. Technical difficulties only added to its charm. Brilliantly performed by Forristal and Clarke, the show manages a tricky mix of funny, heartwarming and moving and more often than not borders on genius. One of if not THE most relevant show at the moment, Public Domain is the perfect remedy for this cold miserable lockdown.
Public Domain will stream live from Southwark Playhouse on Saturday 16th January at 3.15pm and 7.45pm. Encore performances will be available from Tuesday 19th until Sunday 24th January. Tickets are available from https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/public-domain/