Reviews: NSFW at The Royal Court, London - October / November 2012​

Photos: Tristram Kenton, Alastair Muir

Time Out​

4 out of 5 stars

By Andrzej Lukowski

Thursday 1st November 2012

 

Call me a loathsome media parasite, but it’s hard not to feel a morsel of sympathy for Julian Barratt’s self-serving lads’ mag editor Aidan, chief protagonist of Lucy Kirkwood’s new play.

The predicament that he finds himself in – his Nuts-esque weekly has accidentally published a topless picture of a 14-year-old girl – may be one most journalists are blessedly unfamiliar with. But the world Kirkwood paints – a shrinking print media, in which embarrassingly overqualified graduates fight desperately for the limited jobs available – rings painfully true in Simon Godwin’s bright, breezy production.

 

The title ‘NSFW’ (it means not safe for work) may allude to the content of Aidan’s magazine Doghouse, but I suspect Kirkwood is using the acronym as a play on the employability of a generation of graduates. Here the younger characters represent the whole spectrum: Charlotte (played with perky self-loathing by Esther Smith), has a first from Oxbridge and is grateful to have any job at all; Rupert (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), is an obnoxious trust fund kid who sees deadlines as optional; and Sam (Sacha Dhawan) is a sweet lad trapped in a grisly cycle of unpaid internships.

NSFW’ is a short play, with a main plot that culminates in Adrian’s odiously manipulative attempts to stop the topless girl’s father from taking legal action. That’s followed by a sting-in-the-tale final sequence in which the hapless Sam stumbles into the equally awful world of a Heat-style women’s mag (edited by Janie Dee’s monstrous Miranda).

It’s a fairly nihilistic survey of modern gender politics and the parlous state of print media, but Kirkwood cushions it by retaining a note of empathy for even her worst characters. Aidan and Miranda may be awful, but we can see how the world made them this way – they aren’t responsible for society’s perception of women, they reflect it.

Above all it’s extremely funny: Mighty Boosh man Barratt is beautifully low key as an avuncular survivor whose mild manner belies the fact he will say and do anything to preserve his hide. And after the comparatively understated Doghouse scenes, Dee’s gorgonic Miranda ends things with some welcome comic fireworks. I’m not sure Kirkwood has much more to tell us than ‘we’re fucked’. But she sugars the pill well.

The Telegraph

4 out of 5 stars

By Charles Spencer

Thursday 1st November 2012

A few years ago, I wrote a disobliging review of Lucy Kirkwood’s first play, Tinderbox, a dystopian farce that I described as a festering mixture of irritation and boredom.

In a recent interview the playwright said it still made her upset when she thought of this notice, adding, “If I wasn’t such a stubborn old cow I may have just given up and stopped writing at that point.”

I can only apologise for causing her pain and say how pleased I am that she persevered, for NSFW is a cracking piece, sharp, funny, and timely. It actually offers two plays for the price of one, for this 80-minute production, which elegantly packs a great deal into its brief running time, is set in the offices of two very different magazines, though a couple of characters appear in both parts.

The title stands for Not Safe For Work and refers to the kind of online material you would be ill-advised to download if your boss happened to be around. The first section is set at a raunchy lad’s mag called Doghouse which runs photographs of topless women alongside travel pieces and articles on boys’ toys. It has just proudly unveiled the breast-baring winner of its Local Lovely 2012 competition, sent in by a reader. The crisis comes when it is discovered that the buxom Carrie, 18, who “likes Twilight books and theme parks” is actually only 14 – and her father is taking legal action.

In the second piece, the young journalist who chose the picture is seeking alternative employment having received his P45 from Doghouse. Compared with the joshing, testosterone-charged atmosphere of his former employer, everything seems civilised and serene at Electra magazine, presided over by a sleek and stylish editor. But the objectification of women, Kirkwood suggests, is perhaps even more insidious here. To qualify for the job, the luckless Sam is required to look at pictures of famous, glamorous women and identify their physical flaws, ranging from thigh bulge to bad boob jobs.

The play wears its feminism lightly, and is often waspishly funny. It is also dramatically gripping, especially the scene in which the editor of Doghouse attempts to bribe and bully the anguished father into withdrawing his legal action. The piece is touching, too, in its depiction of the ill-paid indignities inflicted on young print journalists in an increasingly beleaguered trade.

Simon Godwin directs a cracking production, elegantly and ingeniously designed by Tom Pye, and there are a host of fine performances. Julian Barratt, (best known as one half of the comedy act the Mighty Boosh) makes a persuasively cynical and devious lad’s mag boss, while Janie Dee is in superbly feline form as the editor of the women’s glossy, playing cruel cat-and-mouse games with Sacha Dhawan’s touchingly good hearted young journo who is desperate for work. This is a richly absorbing and inventive play and I am delighted that Kirkwood’s stubborn refusal to throw in the towel has paid off so handsomely.

Independent​

4 out of 5 stars

By Paul Taylor

Thursday 1st November 2012 

NSFW stands for “not safe for work” – ie online material (predominantly porn) that a viewer might not want to be seen accessing in a public space.

This is not an acronym that would need to be invoked much, though, in the offices of Doghouse, a Nuts-style men’s magazine, which is the setting for the first half of Lucy Kirkwood’s black satire about power and privacy in the cut-throat era of Photoshop, internet exhibitionism and high graduate unemployment where over-qualified hopefuls can be obliged to degrade themselves to get a toe-hold in the recession-hit media.

“What I’m saying,” declares the raffishly venal editor, Aidan (excellent Julian Barratt) “is let’s really live in the spaces between the boobs, yeah?” as he talks about re-positioning the mag for readers now ten years older than at the start with features, in the “Doghouse version” of the truth, about, say, “how I was dumped by Pippa Middleton”. But then the busty, topless winner of their 2012 “Local Lovely” competition turns out to be a 14 year old girl whose consent forms were forged by her boyfriend.

Directed with buoyancy and bite by Simon Godwin, the play dramatises two moral capitulations to devious temptation. In the first, Aidan emotionally blackmails the irate father (Kevin Doyle) into accepting £25,000 hush money.

Improbably, given the circumstances, the latter (divorced, jobless, ex-pest-control) has been admitted to being a regular “reader” of Doghouse which does not give him much weight in any argument about whether magazines such as this serve to create, rather than merely cater for, a culture in which pubescent girls have been known to ask Santa for “a Labradoodle and a boob job”.

It’s more interesting once we move to the sleek white offices of Electra, a weekly for young women. Encased in the concrete of extreme glamour, Janie Dee’s editor is a sublimely funny monster of flagrant bad faith and flirty, fake concern as she spouts her practised cant about a readership of upscale ABC1 females – “leaders, thinkers, dreamers, shoppers” – who want both a two-state solution in the Middle East and shoes, shoes, shoes.

The cruel test she sets likeable 24 year old applicant Sam (Sacha Dhawan) proves that Electra is an extension rather than a rebuttal of Doghouse in its cynical objectification of the female sex. Esther Smith shines as the bright Oxford First who is so ashamed of working for the latter that she tells her women’s group she’s an estate agent.

Evening Standard

4 out of 5 stars

By Henry Hitchings

Thursday 1st November 2012

 

Lucy Kirkwood’s new play is a savvy and deeply uncomfortable look at the world of modern media. It’s a timely, provocative response to the way women are presented in magazines – and is studded with moments of outrageous humour.

The title is explained for the benefit of anyone who’s not come across it: an abbreviation of ‘Not safe for work’, a discreet warning that a piece of online content (usually a video clip) isn’t the sort of thing you’d like your boss to catch you gawping at. In three longish scenes – adding up to 85 minutes – the question of what’s ‘safe’ at work is explored from two distinct angles.

The first two scenes are set at Doghouse, a laddish magazine run by sceptical, scheming Aidan (Julian Barratt). It’s a crass publication, edited with knowing vulgarity. Aidan and his team trade educated quips while pandering to an unsophisticated audience they seem to hold in contempt.

There are some deliciously funny moments here, many of them to do with the obstinacy of Rupert, a Hoxton trustafarian played with ghastly perfection by Henry Lloyd-Hughes. But things get ugly when Doghouse prints a photo of a naked girl whose boyfriend has sent the picture in without her consent. She turns out to be fourteen: her furious father is treated to Aidan’s full range of suave chat and trickery.

We then move forward nine months, to the much slicker offices of women’s magazine Electra, presided over by glamourpuss Miranda (Janie Dee). At Doghouse, men betray women; here it is women who betray women. Miranda is interviewing Doghouse reject Sam (the very effective Sacha Dhawan), and her questioning is unorthodox. It hinges on showing him an image of a famous actress and insisting ‘I need you to point out the ways in which this woman is not perfect’.

It’s a request that makes Sam feel awkward, and Kirkwood is alive to the compromises many people accept in order to get ahead in the so-called creative industries. In rising director Simon Godwin’s production, piquant issues of this kind are handled with a deft touch.

Barratt, in only his second stage role, makes Aidan a captivating mix of thug and thinker. Yet Dee’s Miranda is perhaps even more of a monster – flamboyant proof of the confidence and sharpness of Kirkwood’s writing.

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