Public Domain – Vaudeville Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Book and Lyrics: Francesca Forristal

Music and Lyrics: Jordan Paul Clarke

Director: Adam Lenson

The impact of digital theatre continues to be felt in the West End with two shows that premiered online during lockdown making a live theatre transfer in the same week. With Cruise playing to great acclaim round the corner at the Duchess Theatre, the Southwark Playhouse production of Public Domain written by Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke opens at the Vaudeville Theatre, a timely comment on the dangers of living our lives through a screen.

Dear Evan Hansen may have been the first musical of the social media age with digital platforms being the basis for its story as well as its visual design, but verbatim piece Public Domain is a stark warning about the cost of sharing our data and our lives with faceless and largely ungoverned multinational corporations. Its transition to the Vaudeville, a computerised voice warns, will leave you wanting to delete all of your accounts instantly.

Using the testimony of real users, influencers, content creators, moderators and company owners, this musical has three intertwined strands that slowly build a picture of the eroding nature of social media. First, there is direct media content including video clips, interviews and legal hearings largely involving Mark Zuckerberg that frame the political points that Forristal and Clarke are making about intrusive and unaccountable tech firms.

Second, and related, the creators play out these conversations within the drama, performing as Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan who appear on talk shows and interviews promoting their perfect relationship, charity work and belief they are building a better future for their children. Reprising this notion later in the show, however, it starts to warp, cynical publicity here shown to be an attempt to wash their hands of the consequences.

In the third strand, Forristal and Clarke play opposite influencers recording their endless videos, one full of positivity and affirmation, the other needing an outlet for depression but both looking for validation, believing the audience is their friend but finding it increasingly difficult to sustain the pace. At first, this is a barrage of information, almost overwhelming and seemingly shapeless in its approach but soon the strands meld together to form a compelling and critically astute piece of political theatre.

Libby Todd’s set design references the digital origins and subject of Public Domain, using three large screens on stage and overhanging banner onto which the show, clips, tweets, comments and chat are projected including the new channels created by the influencers within the show. They cleverly replicate the actors faces across the set in an endless loop of creating and watching, all enhanced by Matt Daw and Sam Waddington’s lighting.

Forristal plays the chirpy health and lifestyle vlogger, exactly capturing the boastful yet approachable nature of the more successful content creators, charting well the increased burden and decline. She also transforms into various real-life characters including Chan and several Senators seeking answers from Clarke’s placid Zuckerberg, who becomes increasingly discomposed by their questions. Clarke also gets plenty of laughs as the needy YouTuber although this character feels less clearly drawn than Forristal’s equivalent.

With Facebook receiving the lion’s share of criticism, Public Domain smartly pieces together legal challenges, poor treatment of staff and the exposing terms and conditions that defer responsibility to the user to build a convincing picture of compromise and neglect. With other platforms also in the firing line, as you leave the theatre you probably checked into, posted about and Instagrammed, Forristal and Clarke will make you think twice about tweeting your review.

Runs until 30 May 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Critically astute

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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