Book and Lyrics: Francesca Forristal
Music and Lyrics: Jordan Paul Clarke
Director: Adam Lenson
It seems apt that a show about the internet should encounter some digital glitches on its first live performance. With an initial delay of 15 minutes, then a false start, Public Domain was cruelly shut down 10 minutes before its conclusion. But perseverance pays off and this musical about the dangers of social media is certainly worth Tweeting about.
Broadcast live from Southwark Playhouse for three performances, and then available as a recorded stream from next week, Public Domain is a verbatim musical with the lyrics to the catchy songs pulled from interviews, YouTube channels and Twitter. The best verbatim musical is, surely, London Road about the Ipswich murders earlier this century where even the ums and ahs of the interviewees were given their place in their music. Public Domain appears to have this National Theatre production in mind.
Its opening song about the wonders of Facebook is glorious and, with a film of emoji likes and faces superimposed on the stream, the show is an exciting blend of theatre, film and live TV with Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke having to remember which camera to look into at the right time. They sing of more optimistic days when becoming ‘friends of your friends’ made you feel ‘a little less alone.’
However, those days now seem wrapped in innocence and we are more aware of the ways in which social media companies use (and sometimes misuse) our data. The rest of Public Domain’s 65 minutes is more cynical, especially in the running thread that charts Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s journey from family man to being pulled into Congress to explain how people’s data was shared after the Cambridge Analytical scandal. Telling his daughter that Facebook is a book shop seems a long way from having to explain the internet to Congressmen.
Public Domain also looks at Facebook moderators, who are sometimes witness to the worst kinds of photos and videos, and Forristal and Clarke’s song about this is the best of the bunch. It begins with employees being excited about their job and ends with them suffering from PTSD, with only 9 minutes a day for ‘wellness’. The song, dramatic and evocative, is the perfect vehicle for such a subject.
Another story that runs through the show is the tale of two influencers who speak to their followers through YouTube. Forristal plays Millie, a young woman with an estuary accent, extolling fitness and doling out life style platitudes. Her song, where she is joined by a chorus of recorded voices on Zoom, is another stand out tune, and even though the lyrics are somewhat comical, Forristal manages to ensure the song reaches an emotion end.
Clarke’s alter ego is less successful and it’s difficult to believe in his posh boy SwaggyWan who gives tips on how to be popular at school. Fortunately, we don’t see too much of this irritating influencer and Clarke is better at playing Zuckerberg anyway.
In a show that is full of surprises, the best surprise comes at the end, and the last song’s hopefulness matches the bright notes of the start. While we might miss live theatre, the internet is providing many opportunities for young creatives and it’s hard to see how this show by Forristal and Clarke could be improved on when we are back IRL.
Runs live until 16 January then available as recorded stream from 19 January from here