Thursday, February 20, 2020

Dream, Sleep, Connect – Rosemary Jenkinson holds up a mirror to our dystopian present (c21 Theatre at Lyric Theatre until 22 February + NI tour)

The opening soundtrack of Kate Tempest’s People’s Faces is very apt – “I face off with the physical … / There is so much peace to be found in people's faces … / More empathy / Less greed / More respect” – perfectly sets the mood for c21 Theatre Company’s latest production Dream, Sleep, Connect which investigates our modern tendency to eschew face-to-face contact for a spot of digital disconnection.

Connexia are quickly established as a global IT solution provider with few scruples and big profits. Programmer Chris has just finished working on a cutting-edge technology-led customs solution for the border – as absent of friction as it is staff on the ground – and finds himself constructing a big brother system to trawl through social media and weed out benefits scroungers. Meanwhile the upcoming work ‘do’ reinvigorates his efforts to find a +1 until his boss Lucy becomes less than h-app-y with his phone’s constant buzzing and messaging. His first meetup is a lucky escape, but the second shows promise.

The dystopian themes play well into the Lyric’s current season which includes New Speak and 1984 in April.

Richard Clements plays the geekish loner Chris who seems bullied by his mum, his boss and everyone who responds to his right swiping. Opposite him is the versatile Maria Connolly who deftly switches between three well-rounded roles as boss, date and girlfriend. We learn much through the tone of voice of Connolly’s characters: Lucy’s somewhat robotic articulation of the company strategy hints that they may not be alone in the office while Cora’s nervous chitter belies someone veering between fragile and paranoid as the pair meet for drinks in the local pub.

Rosemary Jenkinson doesn’t write politically correct theatre. She’ll have been delighted that audience members audibly gasped at the closeness to the bone of some of the dialogue in last night’s performance. Clements and Connolly display bravura and bravado as they deliver the lines and ignore sensibilities and poke at sores until there’s pain before applying a soothing balm of humour and jokes about corkscrews.

The simple set incorporates a disguised screen to let us snoop at the messages pinging back and forth on Chris’ devices and delivers a rather neat effect near the end of the one act play.

While the characters are not too extreme, this isn’t a drama that demands your emotional involvement. Director Stephen Kelly allows it to be played for satire and laughs all the way through and never attempts to bring too much realism to the fabricated situation (though the awkward first date banter may seem uncomfortably recognisable). While you can leave your pathos at the door on the way into the theatre, you’ll have to pick it up on the way back out and ponder the fresh hell we have created by mixing up long working hours, app culture, narcissism, transactional relationships, surveillance and privacy concerns with trending poor mental health. There must be more to life than dreaming, sleeping and connecting?

Dream, Sleep, Connect finishes its run at the Lyric Theatre on Saturday 22 February before touring through Strule Arts Centre, Omagh (Wednesday 26), Island Arts Centre, Lisburn (Friday 28), Cushendall Golf Club (Saturday 29), Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Newry (Tuesday 3 March), Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (Friday 6) and Market Place Theatre, Armagh (Saturday 7).

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