Lucy Kirkwood’s NSFW (which, for those less familiar with Internet lingo stands for ‘Not Safe For Work’) uses UK trash mag culture to initiate a scathing exploration of the ways in which women, but also men, can be exploited and degraded by the media.

Business is as usual in the offices of fictional men’s mag Doghouse – jokes are made, coffees are sipped and story ideas concocted – that is, until they find out that they have accidentally featured a fourteen-year-old girl as their topless-covergirl-of-the-month.

The staff members at Doghouse are all very recognisable types. Aidan (Ben Prendergast), the jaded and smarmy editor, presides over Sam (Matthew Whitty), the sensitive and ill-fated newbie; Charlotte (Kasia Kaczmarek), a frustrated Oxford graduate and feminist; and Rupert (Mark Casamento) your typical Eton prat.

Doghouse goes into damage control when they realise their mistake, and they have precious little time to work out a plan before the girl’s furious father (James Wardlaw) appears on the scene to have his say. What plays out is a repulsive attempt from Adrian to pay off the father to please make this all go away.

Some time passes following the scandal, during which Doghouse is reincarnated as Electra, a women’s mag with the sassy and domineering but secretly insecure Miranda (Olga Makeeva) at the helm. The now-unemployed Sam is interviewed for a position in the magazine, and it becomes while clear that the degradation of women in the media occurs on both sides of the gender divide.

While there is humour peppered throughout the script, which is quite smart and critical, it is difficult to identify let alone enjoy the humour when such a fraught and sensitive subject is being explored onstage. Perhaps as a young woman, the subject material for me hits a little too close to home to be anything but a warning against society for its self-destructive media habits.

The cast is strong, with Makeeva as the stand-out and Whitty a close second, but the direction lets down these clearly talented actors. All of the characters more-or-less function as a representation of a social group, which makes for many interesting interactions onstage and complex discussions to be had offstage about the state of our media. More assured direction, however, may have been able to raise these characters from merely representational into people we actually care about and side with (or against). If more attention had have been paid to character development, the play would have functioned as an engaging story, not just as a public service announcement.

Still, Red Stitch continues to deliver smart and important theatre, and everyone involved should be commended. 

 

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