“You just need to know someone’s listening. That’s enough, isn’t it?”
Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s chilling dark comedy ‘Chatroom’ finds its way to a digital adaptation presented by the Northern Comedy Theatre. Originally written in 2005, Chatroom delves into the lives of a group of bored and restless teenagers – William, Jack, Eva, Emily and Laura – who occupy the dark corners of the internet in anonymous chat rooms, swapping stories about dysfunctional families, discussing obscure pop culture and even attempting to solve the troubles that plague them, together. However, the light-hearted banter and the occasional jibes take a dark turn when a new member named Jim joins the chat and shares his thoughts about his struggles with depression, anxiety and suicide. As relevant as the day it was first staged, Chatroom is a powerful depiction of the growing isolation and alienation amongst young people, and how social media technology may be accelerating this even further.
Northern Comedy Theatre’s digital adaptation reimagines the script onto the virtual platform of Zoom, an effortless transition given the story’s original premise. Featuring an ensemble cast of Tom Hardie, Scott Levi, Caitlin Hamilton, India Gibbins, Ben Knowles and Gabrielle Richardson, the performance keeps you hooked you from the opening scene itself. The creative team makes good use of the ‘talking heads’ visual aesthetic with the faces of the performers illuminated by the brightness of their screens rather than by (other) artificial lighting. It succeeds in communicating the ‘mindless scrolling’ phenomenon many of us struggle with – being tucked away in our bed with the lights off and the faint, tactile dim of changing colours being thrown back on our face – highlighting the feelings of anxiety, insecurity and insomnia that draws our six teenagers to the internet in the first place. Needless to say, this also emphasizes the overtly sinister tones of the online conversation – where some of the teens encourage Jim to follow through on his plan of suicide just for the kick of it. Each of the performers is nuanced yet precise with their lines, using their proximity with the Zoom frame to effectively position themselves in relation to their ‘stakes’ in a particular scene. A special mention goes to Hardie, playing the role of William, who is particularly effective in balancing the character’s menacing undertones with their inner insecurity of trying to be the alpha male in the (virtual) room.
Directed by Shaun Chambers, the composition of this digital Chatroom is straightforward and linear that combines the sharp, witty dialogue with simple movements that relies on performers interacting with their physical spaces. What also stands out is the clever use of silence and shared gazes between the performers, allowing them to establish their characters’ purpose with their physicality as much as with their dialogue. Talking about the choice of the text, Chamber adds “Enda Walsh’s Chatroom is a great vehicle for young actors. Yes, it may deal with some gritty issues, but we feel that comedy usually comes from a very serious place” and emphasises the growing mental health implications of the pandemic on young people, especially those working in the creative arts whose employment opportunities have been severely affected whilst theatres have continued to remain shut in light of the government’s wavering guidelines.
To summarize, Northern Comedy Theatre’s Chatroom is a chilling reminder of all that can go wrong on social media and how easy it is for our lives to get intertwined with that of a stranger on the internet, even if we didn’t intend for it to happen. An honest and an unconvoluted adaptation of the original stage play, this is one experience that stays with you for a while after.
Tune in to Northern Comedy Theatre’s Chatroom at the link here: https://northerncomedytheatre.com/chatroom-1
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 13th March 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★