Public Domain, Vaudeville Theatre | Review

Friday, 28 May 2021

Public Domain
Vaudeville Theatre
Reviewed on Thursday 27th May by Olivia Mitchell 

Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke first premiered their verbatim musical Public Domain in January as part of the Southwark Playhouse's lockdown streaming series. Directed by Adam Lenson, they have moved to the Vaudeville Theatre to bring their fresh, British musical to in person audiences.

Public Domain is interesting in the way that it doesn't have a fixed narrative or structure. Instead it's a melange of different characters' lives and their journeys with social media. There are two influencers, Z who drops out of school at 16 to make YouTube his career but who really doesn't know what he's doing with his life; and Millie, a health and lifestyle vlogger who is all about the #positivevibes. Alongside these two, we also hear mostly from Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr Priscilla Chan. A number of other characters, all played by the extremely talented Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke (who also wrote the book, lyrics and orchestrations) join together to take us back to the roots of Facebook and see how what started as a harmless way of keeping in contact, has become so ingrained in our everyday lives without us even realising.

The set is simple but effective, with Libby Todd setting up see through screens that separate the actors and the audience, a clever nod to the divide between online personalities and their viewers. The space in the middle becomes the "real world" and the screens also provide the backdrop for a selection of extremely well done projections by Matt Powell. In a show about technology, it's delightful that there is so much of it used so well. The video overlays of real life comments made by Mark Zuckerberg amongst others are seamlessly woven in and the virtual choir who join for one number work really well. Cameo's by Donald Trump and George Bush also feel painfully poignant.

The verbatim musical takes quotes directly from posts, tweets, videos and other online content to create a semi-real, semi-distorted reality which is moved along by an entertaining techno-pop score. Forristal and Clarke are relentless and excellent in their performances and they cleverly highlight the struggles and contradictions of today's social media world, however, it does end up feeling a little one layer.

Whilst the topics covered are very affecting, especially that of the Facebook content moderators who were left scarred by watching hundreds of videos of abuse and murder, it was overall very 'the internet sucks, we're in an endless cycle of bad things'. Which to an extent is obviously true, but it would have been interesting to have a little balance with the more positive, community driven, wholesome sides of social media. There is a heart-warming moment with some senior citizens discussing their use of the internet but the positives felt somewhat outdated and brushed over.

That's not to say this isn't a good show though and aside from anything, it's a real treat to see a new, British musical paving the way in the West End. The music is incredibly catchy and the overall presentation of the show is great, it just feels like it's almost scratching the surface of what social media is, and what message the show wants to put across. This will certainly be a musical that has many iterations and it will be very interesting to see how it grows and changes alongside social media.

photos by Jane Hobson