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Review: Harm (Bush Theatre)

Kelly Gough stars in Pheobe Eclair-Powell's play examining the corrupting influence of social media

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Kelly Gough in Harm
© Isha Shah

In the topsy turvy world in which we all find ourselves, Harm, a monologue about the seductions and dangers of the online world, was originally due to premiere at the Bush Theatre last February before the pandemic struck and closed all stages. Instead, it got an outing on screen in the BBC's excellent ''Lights Up' season; now it makes its debut in the place for which it was originally intended.

It is given a surreal edge by Rosanna Vize's design, dominated by a giant, gray stuffed rabbit, that comes to stand for all the unknown comfort and love that our unnamed narrator, played by Kelly Gough, lacks in her life. When in her unsatisfying job as an estate agent, she meets sleek, white-teethed, online influencer Alice ("I bet she owns Kilner jars") she becomes increasingly obsessed.

The play by Bruntwood Prize-winner Phoebe Eclair-Powell is particularly sharp in its early stages, painting a devastatingly acute picture both of the loneliness of the narrator's existence – "Sometimes I don't brush my teeth before bed" – and of the glossiness of an online world where events such as cooking, or home decorating aren't activities but opportunities to create content for an avid group of followers.

It's funny and acute about the gentrification of South London, and the way that people's lives are being not just influenced but changed by the tastes of a group of people who post their lifestyle choices on social media to win likes. As Alice becomes pregnant and begins "embracing this crazy pregnancy journey the only way I know how. #Chocolate. #Ad" the mood darkens, and our narrator becomes more unhinged.

Under the guise of 'sadbitch11', she finds a validation for her unhappiness and frustration in the online world. For if that unreality can spawn endless mediated pictures of perfect lives, it also creates their mirror image in vicious chatrooms where she can join the gossip of those who find their own validation in malicious trolling and vile attacks. As she too gathers followers, she finds the power that eludes her in her own sad life, where her stepmother is a woman only two years older than her and where her own flat is full of mould not of "monsoon orange" walls.

Gough portrays all this without holding anything back but without ever sacrificing sympathy for a character who is most lost at exactly the moment she thinks she is found. Under Atri Banerjee's focused, fast-paced direction, her life unspools and Gough makes us collude in her misery, noting every discordant, unhappy beat.

It's an impressive performance and the writing is always refined even though Eclair-Powell can't quite sustain the brilliance of the earlier sections. As her plot unfolds it becomes both more predictable and overly melodramatic. But her voice holds attention. She is definitely one to watch.

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