Saturday 5th March 2022, at Harrogate Theatre (Studio)
Aliki Chapple and Ben Rigby perform 666 comments posted in response to a (pretty great) comic about sexism shared online by Gabby Schulz in 2010. The whole shebang may have taken place twelve years ago, but it’s abundantly clear that the notorious “cesspit” of online pontification and biting abuse is still alive and kicking – though not without its fair share of wit and articulate musings of course…
This is a great concept for verbatim theatre and Daniel Bye’s direction does well to create some variety amidst the high volume of comments recited verbatim from the posts of strangers. Stools and desks are used to provide neutral spaces for keyboard warriors or soap boxes for wounded yelly MRA’s (that’s Men’s Rights Activists, FYI). Hannah Sibai’s design marks territory quickly with a baby blue and candy floss pink theme apparent across furniture and set pieces, while boppy (I want to say 1950’s/ 60’s) ditties are used at intervals to break the cycle and provide some breathing space for cast and audience alike.
While those evident strengths are in play though, this is a production which is unsteady on its feet at times. Things get off to a clunky start as the cast introduce the piece factually and semi-formally rather than theatrically, which feels like a missed opportunity for a concept with so much potential for bold staging. More than once there’s some awkwardness around transitions and whose turn to talk it might be which gives the piece a sense of needing polish. In terms of design, the team are aware of issues with the clarity of the projection screen and spend time as the audience arrive handing out print-outs of the comic strip and holding their hands up to the fact that the writing isn’t always readable once projected – and they’re not wrong – it’s difficult to make out the images or the text, which raises the question of why an alternative or back-up hasn’t been embraced…
But, once Chapple and Rigby hit their stride, they showcase an impressive array of voices and characterisations as they whizz through the various personas momentarily channelled. Pace is well-set and Rigby in particular holds the audience well, making eye contact at just the right time for greater shock value. Both performers bring great energy to 666 Comments and work hard to create distinct personalities, not limiting themselves to representing any gender and instead focusing wholly on presenting us with a vast amount of memorised content as well as comments pulled from a bowl (something offered to the audience, too).
And the content? Well, it’s entertainingly as you’d expect. Bickering and one-upping, and up-yours-ing co-exist alongside over-sharing, rambling and witty wise-cracking. At times the handles alone (also projected) provide the entertainment, but most notably, it’s a striking example of accidental social commentary; a comment thread providing crystal clear illustration of the (allegedly) controversial ideas presented in the source material. The subject matter remains as relevant as ever of course, and an inevitable depressing sense of stalled progress creeps in even as the humour holds its ground. Ultimately, it’s in the apparent compulsion of anonymous strangers to collide online without real-life consequences that this piece finds its entertaining core, but some polish is also needed.
666 Comments, produced by LittleMighty, next plays Poplar Union Theatre on 10th March 2022 and you can find tickets here.