The irony of the rise of social media is that it’s making us increasingly anti-social. A quick survey of any bar, coffee shop or train carriage reveals people interacting with their phones and tablets rather than with each other.
Is it because virtual relationships are easier to handle than real ones? Phil Porter’s ‘Blink’ takes an intriguing and thought-provoking look at that question.
A two-hander, the play tells the story of Jonah and Sophie, two lonely young outcasts in London who find each other through technology.
Isolated and awkward with relationships, Sophie moves with her father from the Isle of Man (“nothing but motorbikes and cats with no tails”) to share a house in Leytonstone. When Dad succumbs to pancreatic cancer Sophie inherits the house and becomes something of a hermit, eventually losing her job as a designer for a software company because she’s “invisible”.
Meanwhile, up North, Jonah has grown up in a religious community run by his father, and is just as socially awkward. When his mother also dies of pancreatic cancer and leaves him a substantial sum of money, he too makes for The Big Smoke, pitching up in Leytonstone on the advice of a (surely rather sadistic) cab driver.
So far, so coincidental.
Completing this symmetry, Jonah moves into Sophie’s house, taking up residence in the downstairs flat previously occupied by her father. Said flat still contains a baby monitor installed by Sophie to keep an eye on her ailing Dad. Which means that Sophie is now able to watch Jonah, too. Anonymously she sends Jonah a monitor tuned into a camera in her flat. Jonah turns it on and discovers that he is able to watch Sophie upstairs. Thus they begin a kind of wordless, virtual relationship – even watching each other watch the same programmes on TV. This remote romance develops with Jonah taking to following Sophie in the outside world, but the two never meeting, until one day fate steps in…
All this might sound a bit creepy, even somewhat sinister. But instead what unfolds is a charmingly quirky and ultimately heart-breaking little tale; a sort of ‘indie’ rom-com, told through characters who speak to the audience, but hardly to each other.
The effect of this disconnect between the characters could have been distancing for the audience. In fact, thanks to fine acting and sharp, distinctly Alan Bennett-style writing, it turned out to be fascinating and utterly engaging. We find ourselves really caring about these two.
For that, credit goes to Philly Spurr and Robert O’Neill who turned in well-observed, beautifully-detailed and truthful performances – not just as the main protagonists, but also as a host of other characters, from a condescending HR manager to – most memorably – an excitable German doctor.
With the audience sitting on either side of the playing space and two pillars smack in the middle of it, staging shows in the bar can be problematic. But, in what was his directorial debut at BLT, Andrew Newbon dealt with these difficulties inventively, using every inch of the space to full effect.
Sound (by Martin Phillips) and lighting design (by Emma Christmas) were also effective and well-judged, the ‘flicker’ effect in the scenes where Jonah and Sophie watch their favourite soap on TV being a particular standout.
Also on the technical side, special plaudits must go to Keith Jeremiah and Simon Tyrell-Lewis for the ingenious use of TV monitors, which showed the audience what Jonah and Sophie were ‘watching’ on their screens, making us complicit in the voyeuristic feel of the piece.
Once again, I was struck by how well the BLT bar lends itself to lower-key, more intimate shows such as this. There’s a real community feeling about watching a play in this space – an intensely shared experience. In a world where we’re becoming increasingly connected to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram rather than each other, that’s definitely something to “like”.