Nick is 14 years old. He’s struggling, like any teenager, to develop a relationship with his mother as a young adult, make friends and deal with his burgeoning sexuality. Combine that with the internet and it’s a heady, dangerous combination. Once Nick is introduced to the concept of “dark play” in drama class (a kind of game where only some people know they are playing and others are unaware of the game at all), it inevitably spirals out of control.
A 21st century Tom Ripley: all sharp wit, charm and manipulation
Computers are now an integral part of our lives. However, despite the fact that your phone is probably host to more drama than the latest episode of Eastenders, it’s notoriously hard to satisfyingly translate that on stage. Through creative staging, Dark Play or Stories for Boys manages to take a narrative almost exclusively set online and make it thoroughly engaging. Chunky laptops are regularly snapped shut and the characters of Nick’s imagination live and breathe their lines in front of you instead. Nick is a 21st century Tom Ripley: all sharp wit, charm and manipulation. His online alter ego Rachel is believable and warm; at times she looks longingly over at Nick, as if she truly had her own consciousness and wants to refuse his instructions. Nick’s chosen target for manipulation, Adam, is boyish and wide eyed. The supporting actors bring plenty of levity into what could otherwise be a punishingly dark performance; Bailey Jordan Garcia’s drama teacher is a particular delight, making the audience roll with laughter with every “darkness!” and “danger!” she pops out with. With such convincing performances, it’s not long before you, like Adam, buy into Rachel and a host of other characters – such as her stepdad and a detective – as real, despite how outlandish they objectively are.
Vittoria Orlando’s lighting design does much to add to the tense atmosphere. The opening scene opens with Nick’s face dramatically lit by his laptop alone. Elsewhere, swirling tubes of bright light represent Ethernet cables and give the set a haunting glow. Marc David Wright’s direction also ensures that the actors make full use of the space, maintaining the dynamism necessary to keep up with Carlos Murillo fast paced script.
We never truly understand Nick’s motivational pull towards his own destruction. Is he just a bored teenager? Is he looking for love in a lonely life himself? Nick, by his own confession, is an unreliable narrator. He sometimes paints himself as the villain, sometimes as a victim. As a result, Dark Play reveals an uncomfortable dark truth. How complicit are we, the audience, in Nick’s dark play? Many of us will have caught an episode of Catfish and laughed at young people who truly believed the person they fell in love with online was exactly who they said they were. Yet, even without creating entirely fictional characters, through the careful curation of online personas and facial filters many of us create an illusion of ourselves every day. Forget the subtitle Stories for Boys, Dark Play is a psychological thriller that reads as a cautionary tale for all of us: fact can be stranger than fiction and sometimes we should be wary of both.