Writer: Lizi Patch
Director: Mark Hollander
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Society still has an idealised concept of what a childhood should be; it’s full of innocence, of play and simple engagement with the world, sheltered from and only slowly inducted into the full meaning of becoming a grown-up. But rapid technological advance has meant that children are exposed to often explicit knowledge of adulthood at an increasingly early age, often without their parent’s consent. From rows over bikinis for eight-year-olds to the violent content of video games, protecting children from unsuitable influences is a key concern for many families.
Punching the Sky is Lizi Patch’s autobiographical account of her campaign against internet pornography when her 11-year-old son was unknowingly sent a link by a classmate. This narrated and semi-dramatised account is, however, primarily about what it means to be a mother from learning to be selfless, through endless birthday cakes and parties to awkward questions about the world that make up a happy daily life in the Patch household. So when talk eventually turns to the video and the media frenzy that followed, the audience cannot forget this story is about a mother protecting her boy.
The decision to create a performance piece about their experiences is an unusual but effective one, and cleverly integrates warmly narrated scenes with dramatic reconstructions and some lovely animated sequences of simple child-like drawings. Patch takes considerable time to create a sense of her family life and the 11 years of motherhood that give a vivid sense of the lives of her two sons. Couched in this loving and protective world makes the impact of what Arthur sees more stark and there is a noticeable shift in tone as she describes the incident itself.
Throughout, the internet is personified and two actors – Rob Ward and Emily Dowson – play the role of various disembodied voices on forums and social media who provide contrasting advice on parenthood, as well as occasionally support or criticism of Patch’s later campaign. Often this becomes a babble of noise and images implying the information-overload that the Internet has created with very few clear solutions, while occasionally conflating the ideas of childhood innocence with a simpler time before the Internet when ‘Boots was your moral guardian’. Ward and Dowson both flit impressively between a number of characters that add variety to the performance.
The focus on the family, however, means you never quite get to grips with what Patch actually did in her campaign, her motivation for pursuing it on such a large scale and how it consequently affected her and her family. In an impressive feat of self-reflection you’re not asked to agree with her choices or actions, and the ways in which criticisms of her approach have been incorporated into this show are a striking feature, but as the dialogue with the audience becomes more frustrated you do begin to lose the connection with the people it affected.
There’s no doubting that the emotional influence of this piece grows and is most striking in its final moments when the audience gets to see a home video of Arthur playing in his village. Then it becomes abundantly clear that this innocent little boy shouldn’t have access to pornographic content. And while you leave wanting to know just a bit more about the consequences of this campaign on Patch and her family, Punching the Sky is a great way to engage more people in the debate.
Runs until: 30 April 2016 | Image: Contributed