Review: NUTS Performs NSFW

Kiren Ahluwalia and Andrew Eddy direct NSFW (Not Safe for Work), the third play of NUTS’ season displaying works by female playwrights. The cast executes an absorbing and highly entertaining piece that does a fine job of capturing the dark humour and satirical edge of Lucy Kirkwood’s script.

The play itself centres on the fast-paced world of publishing and magazines, and is set in the fictional editorial offices of raunchy lad mag Doghouse and chic women’s magazine Electra. Part satire, part dark comedy, it sheds an uncomfortable light on the state of modern media, highlighting the ways in which young, talented graduates are too often exploited by those in power and are forced to compromise on their values in order to get ahead in what seems to be a ruthless industry.

Act One begins in a seemingly comic vein. Aidan, editor of Doghouse, tells employees Sam, Charlotte and Rupert: “What I’m saying is, let’s really live in the spaces between the boobs, yeah?”, speaking of adapting the magazine to suit an older audience. But we are soon moving into more complicated territory. It turns out that the busty, topless winner of their “Local Lovely” competition, the supposedly 18-year-old Carrie, is actually a 14-year-old girl whose consent forms were forged by her boyfriend. Sam, the new recruit responsible for selecting her out of a sea of submissions, is comically distraught. (Hoggart as Sam does a brilliant job, and also possesses the necessary talent to provide seriousness and dramatic weight at key points in the play). The young girl’s father, Mr Bradshaw (fantastic Hagen Marsh Brown), is even more distraught. It’s not funny though – he’s taking legal action. The situation is quite serious but Kirkwood’s script delivers black satire of the highest order. The language is biting, and at times devastating but with more than enough humour to keep the audience laughing.

Act Two sees Aidan bribe and bully Carrie’s father into accepting £25,000 hush money. The back and forth between Gibson and Brown, while dramatically gripping, was slightly too drawn out for this reviewer’s liking. But this is a small quibble: Gibson in the role of Aidan does a terrific job of playing the odiously manipulative editor. Casey Elder too displays an incredible stage presence in this act as her character witnesses Aidan emotionally blackmail Carrie’s father; her moral anguish and indignation is palpable and does much to emphasise the dark undercurrents of the play.

The final act is a decided change in atmosphere, set some months later in the sleek editorial offices of Electra, where the objectification of women is just as insidious  – if men betray women at Doghouse, then here, women betray women. Miranda, the magazine’s stylish but monstrous editor sees it as a place for women to come to read and achieve perfection.

I especially enjoyed Sam O’Donnell as Miranda. She is deliciously repulsive in her girly, fake concern for the good-hearted Sam, who is being interviewed for a job. A memorable line: “We [Electra’s readers] are leaders, thinkers, dreamers, shoppers. We want a two-state solution in the Middle East and shoes, shoes, shoes!” Sitting in the audience, I wondered what kind of pink-packaged, plastic feminism this was: are women still compromising despite having achieved greater freedom?  Are we buying into values that we said we didn’t want?

Miranda, like Aidan, manipulates people. She knows how desperate Sam is for a job but cruelly forces him to look at pictures of famous, glamorous women and point out their physical flaws. Sam is highly reluctant but is forced into sacrificing his principles. Indeed, the title ‘NSFW’ may well refer to the pornographic content of Doghouse, but Kirkwood is most likely also using the acronym as a way of commenting on the current climate in which graduates are coming out of university and trying, often failing, to secure a job. Indeed, Sam, Charlotte and Rupert are all embarrassingly overqualified. Charlotte, a graduate with a first-class degree from Oxford, is so ashamed of working at Doghouse that she tells her feminist group that she works as a real estate agent. Rupert (Sam Williams) – who, although a highly obnoxious trust fund Etonian in Act One – elicits our sympathy later on, in the sense that he becomes the prime example of the indignities inflicted on young journalists by those in power.

Kirkwood has stated in an interview that the play tries to suggest that love and human feeling are things to cling to in an increasingly commercial and exploitative world. Indeed, the play raises important questions about privacy and what kind of knowledge is appropriate to share with the public and what type with our loved ones. It also grapples intelligently with the question of innocence: what drives ever increasingly young girls to take nude photographs of themselves? Do they need the affirmation? Have women been persuaded that it is empowering? If so, by whom? The play is trying to understand the agendas that are prompting people to do what they’re doing. Who is culpable  – the girls themselves, the girls’ parents, the people producing the magazines, the people reading them or something altogether more sinister?

Thought-provoking indeed.