Northern Saint – Fringe Futures Festival/ Pleasance Theatre

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Kitty Ball

We all want the world to be different and the past year has highlighted the corruption, incompetence and inequality in our society. But how many of us would dare put our heads above the parapet to really advocate for change, whatever the costs to our ourselves and those we love? Kitty Ball’s 40-minute play, Northern Saint, showing as part of the Pleasance Theatre’s Fringe Futures Festival, explores that idea as a hastily made viral video becomes the trigger for a political revolution.

Internet-famous activist Layla is giving a lecture during which she tells us her story – the frustrations of lockdown, her accidental celebrity and the sea change it has created in British politics. While friends object to her approach, the activist ploughs on, accepting magazine interviews, photo-shoots and even an invitation to give the rallying speech to a group of protestors demonstrating about the North/South divide, building her confidence along the way.

Ball’s show is first and foremost an exploration of what it means to be a woman in a position of social and political influence, and much of this monologue is given over to understanding the fears that, in particular, hold women back from expressing opinions online and the likely repercussions if they do – an all too familiar and terrifying selection of rape and death threats which, as the title of the show implies, suggests the Medieval and Early Modern notions of women as saints or sinners haven’t come very far.

The actions of this character are deliberately inspirational as she ploughs on regardless, earning a Joan of Arc allusion along the way, leaving you with the notion that bravely using your voice is the only thing to do. But Northern Saint’s conceit is to use WhatsApp as part of the show, allowing the story to unfold in front of you while a chain of social media posts and selfies appear on your phone throughout. It is an added extra to deepen the point Ball is making while extending the construction of her world, but you won’t miss any vital plot points if you don’t have the software and you needn’t spend the entire piece gazing at your phone screen.

This is still a work-in-progress performance, so there are some aspects of the show which could develop even further, and using the in situ video screens to give a rolling feed from the character’s WhatsApp account and other social media would have enhanced the shared experience rather than having to look at individual phones. And while repeated reference is made to the crucial viral video, some pre-recorded excerpts from it or the projected reactions as images and comments would better connect the speaker with the show’s subject matter.

Ball could also look again at Northern Saint’s timelines; there are lots of nested flashbacks to key moments and the days leading up to them which occasionally meander, but it is important for the audience to have a clear sense of the character’s building fame and determination. A tighter chronological structure will then allow for philosophical, ethical and political digressions about the fear and power of the Internet.

Nonetheless, performed with warmth and verve by Saba Nikoufekr, there is a lot to like about Northern Saint, a timely consideration of the value and consequences of social media tools in the creation and expression of political activism.

Reviewed on 1 June 2021

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