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Zombiegate at Theatre 503 – review

The new play opens at the south London home of new writing

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
George Howard, Ebony Jonelle
© Danny Kaan

Punch and Judy take on the internet? That's the way to do it! Matthew Gabrielli's timely new play uses that problematic puppet duo, along with a crocodile, a well-dodgy policeman and some all too fallible human characters, to interrogate the question of whether social media is a force for good or ill. It's an original take on a subject that is much chatted about currently, and it adds another layer of theatricality to a piece that doesn't necessarily tell us anything we don't already know, but has the unmistakable whiff of truth.

To be fair, the familiarity of the subject matter and the abuse hurled at central characters Sophie and Jamie when an ill-advised but non-malicious selfie goes viral, depends very much on your involvement with social media. I watched Julian Bruton's engaging production with a friend who has a minimal online presence and who, while riveted by the play, felt that the insults and threats of death and rape meted out to charity worker Sophie (Ebony Jonelle, excellent) by internet trolls were so over-the-top that they represented a flaw in the writing. Sad to say, they rang completely true to me as somebody who constantly has an eye on social media. It can be a cesspit with zero accountability, and Gabrielli holds an unflinching mirror up to it.

The play, pitched somewhere between thriller and black comedy, further suggests, again all too plausibly, that Sophie bears the brunt of the online bullies' ire because she is a woman of colour, whereas white middle class Jamie, in a fascinatingly layered performance by George Howard, gets off comparatively lightly. If the conceit that these two would post a Halloween pic of themselves got up as zombies in front of a floral tribute to a dead child doesn't quite convince, it's still a useful jumping-off point.

Zombiegate also explores the unforgiving and frequently perverse nature of online engagement as we see Sophie take even more flak after she issues a heartfelt apology then loses her job, while George turns the controversy to his advantage, becoming a global sensation, albeit losing his soul and his best friend in the process.

Gabrielli not-so-subtly implies that, even if in the short term Sophie gets the trauma while George gets the dosh, in the bigger game, she'll be the ultimate winner: there's an underpowered but necessary scene exploring the essentially healthy dynamic between Sophie and her mother, while George's distant, right wing Dad is a formidable, controlling presence but only ever at the other end of the phone. Furthermore, Howard brilliantly delineates the contrast between George the mouthy online provocateur provocateur and the nervy, nerdy hulk he becomes once the camera switches off.

Using the grotesque presences of Punch, Judy and other violent, heartless puppet characters of yore as a means of commentating on all this sounds gimmicky on paper but proves surprisingly potent in performance. Mr Punch is the avatar for one of Sophie's most vociferous online abusers, and his willingness to say the unsayable while claiming "I'm just doing it for the lolz" and not taking any responsibility for the repercussions feels simultaneously shocking and familiar. Chand Martinez is satisfyingly demonic, and ingeniously contrasts his wife-beating troll with an understated turn as the appalled charity boss forced to let Sophie go after all hell has broken loose online. Smashing work too from Virginia Thompson as his puppet sidekick and Sophie's understanding Mum.

Gabrielli has a gift for creating dialogue so convincing that even the more outlandish, if never actually implausible, plot elements feel like they've been ripped from contemporary life. Bruton's staging is well alive to the nuances and absurdities of the story, although the constant rearranging of a couple of benches to indicate changes of setting feels superfluous when the writing is so vivid.

This is a compelling new play: smart, gripping, cautionary and bang-up-to-date (even Elon Musk gets a namecheck). It's a lot of fun but plays on the mind afterwards. After the curtain call, I turned to my social media-sceptic friend and asked if she might now consider setting up a Twitter or Instagram account. Her response? Absolutely not. (Actually, it was much ruder than that, but you get the general idea…)