What makes a play like The Old Room successful is its ability to make the portrayal of pertinent contemporary issues believable. There are examples where technological algorithms have been used with harmless and hilarious consequences – one online retailer, for instance, was said to have promoted ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ to customers who purchased a DVD of ‘The Theory of Everything’, apparently because such customers might like another DVD with the word ‘of’ in its title.
Here, different settings – an office, a bar, an apartment – are laid out rather simply on stage. I fear I doth protest too much by pointing out that the movements of characters sometimes means that it is, technically, clear only from the dialogue which setting a given scene is in. The upside of having all the furniture and seating for each setting on stage is that the lighting is all that is needed to effect a scene change – there’s no frantic shifting around by stagehands, just a slick and smooth transition to the next part of the narrative.
It is important to keep a sense of perspective while watching this story unfold – it turns out Sam Conway (Nicholas Limm), an IT specialist with an interest in online security, has himself had some of his personal details in the hands of people whom he never authorised to handle such information. No wonder Lulu (Miranda Shamiso) loses her temper with him: if the online security consultant’s details have been compromised, what hope is there for IT laypersons who don’t know the difference between ‘dynamic tessellation’ and ‘quantum dot’?
But as those who have seen this production may be keen to point out, there are other reasons why Lulu loses her rag. Most characters have what they get up to outside work revealed in some way. While the details of who is supposed to be having a drink with whom were difficult to care about, it is interesting that such details came out through face-to-face conversation – that is, offline. It could be argued that a show of this nature might have done well to use, for instance, projections of contributions to a WhatsApp or Facebook group, or email correspondence, or whatever it was that Sam was typing away on his laptop, in his attempt to improve security settings on the servers of a political activist group called ‘4C’, victims of hacking.
It’s certainly a very timely play, coming weeks before the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulations, and in the light of activities carried out by Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm. Not necessarily in chronological order, a separate storyline involving Sam Conway, Rowland Gant (Patrick Romer) and Romy (Karina Knapinska), runs in parallel with the office politics, banter and post-work drinks at ‘4C’. The script gives ample opportunity for discussions about online security and the implications of applying additional measures, without sounding too artificial.
The first half was a tad too slow for my liking, but the show comes alive after the interval. Nina (Nicole Roberts) finally displays some emotion, and thanks to Gant, the threats that Romy was being exposed to have been severely curtailed. The ending is far from conclusive, however, and the audience is left to make up its own mind: are the 4C servers now safe, or at least safer? As Conway points out, if someone really wants access to the server, they will find a way through somehow. One can only mitigate rather than eliminate. Thankfully, in this production the audience is never bamboozled by IT jargon. An absorbing and thoughtful play that explores the consequences of online hacking for all parties concerned.
At the White Bear Theatre until 12 May 2018. www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk
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