Slick social shocks

Viral (Shock Therapy Productions)

The Arts Centre Gold Coast, The Space

September 1 – 10

“Viral” begins as audience members enter the theatre; the scene unfolding is of a hospital room featuring a woman (Ellen Bailey) in delivery while the father-to-be (Sam Foster) preoccupies himself on his phone. A nurse (Merlynn Tong) is in initial care until she too poses in a photo for the husband to upload…. because sharing is caring, right? So it is pretty clear, even to those who haven’t familiarised themselves with the show’s blurb as to what its focus will be.

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The new work, written and devised by Shock Therapy Productions explores the role of social media and technology and how it impacts the way we record, communicate and think about events of racism, abuse, violence and sexual assault in the community. It is a thought-provoking, dynamic and entertaining piece that incorporates a range of performance styles and influences, fusing physical theatre, verbatim text, multiple role-sharing, multimedia and political theatre into an intense but highly entertaining piece.

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It beings light-heartedly; the narrative that frames the series of inset vignettes tells of two socially-isolated schoolboys (Writer/Directors Sam Foster and Hayden Jones), who spend lunchtimes alone glued to their smart-phone screens watching the latest viral video on YouTube. To ‘go viral’, is defined as achieving a least a million hits in a week we are told by a Siri as part of an opening announcement. But the boys think this is nothing and are convinced that they can do better, setting up their own YouTube channel and brainstorming what content will serve them best. Initially, the considerations are harmless amalgamations of popular clips featuring top 10s, fails, pranks and of course cats. Along the way they enact famous clips from Gangnam Style to Charlie Bit My Finger and even the more recent Chebacca Mom. They never miss a beat as the two jump in and out of character to mime along in these high energy and highly-engaging scenes.

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But the ‘clips’ become less comfortable as they highlight the lack of humanity of music festival goers filming a girl dying of an overdose, bringing tears almost to eyes. When audience members initially react with laugher, despite foreshadowing of the outcome, the most-through provoking aspect of the show is revealed. This is similarly so during an uncomfortable re-enactment of a rude and racist rant on a train. Indeed, there is much to complete in the both the show’s concept and realisation, and the cast and creatives more than do this justice, making for an absorbing experience the flies by as the boys make unwise content choices and suffer the significant consequences.

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When the work climaxes in a scene of humans, led by Kristian Santic, becoming vultures upon a human with horse head (Reuben Witsenhuysen), things go to a more macabre place, however, the provocation of its confronting imagery and meaning in juxtaposition to the earlier narrative structure is lost in the puns that pepper its narration by a reporting newsman.

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All performers are skilled in characterisation, jumping, within scenes even, between multiple characters of different ages and sensibilities with ease, always making it easy-to-follow thanks to considerations as simple as a collar turned up or down. Ellen Bailey, makes a particularly memorable transition between enthusiastic festival fanatic to stern school Principal with ease. But the works hangs on the excellence of Foster and Jones, and the vitality of their performances together make for the show’s most appealing aspect.

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“Viral” is a slick show, as you would expect in consideration of Shock Therapy’s previous, acclaimed works. It features a cracking soundtrack and vibrant sound and lighting design courtesy of Guy Webster and Jason Glenwright. Nathan Sibthorpe’s AV Design also serves the show well, particularly in delivery of a slam poetry masterclass on social change from Luka Lesson.

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Certainly “Viral” is aimed at younger audience members, although it does also cleverly contain early subtle comment on parental on-line role modelling. At the start of the show the audience is encouraged to leave phones on (silent) and take photos and videos (hashtag Shock Therapy Productions) and it is interesting to see the number and demographic of those that do. It is aspects like this that work so effectively with what is presented on stage to make the production one of such note, hopefully to also be brought to Brisbane in outing soon.

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 Photos c/o – Saffron Jensen

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