Photo: Kelly Gough in 'Harm' at Bush Theatre (Photo by Isha Shah)

'Harm' delves into our emotional and psychological self-harm with an obsessive precision

Sam Marlowe
Sam Marlowe

What are we really doing to ourselves when we start to live our whole lives on social media? What are we doing to each other? In Phoebe Eclair-Powell's smart, acidic new monodrama, the cost of scrolling through endless images of fake perfection, of sacrificing our privacy to create and star in them, and of comparing them to our own ordinary, messy realities is cruelly high. We all know that most of us routinely give far more of ourselves away online than is strictly safe or healthy; that we can too easily begin to measure our worth in likes. But Eclair-Powell's writing picks at the scabs of our emotional and psychological self-harm with an obsessive precision, dramatising feelings that are the constant background throb of 21st century malaise: loneliness, boredom, dissatisfaction, bitter envy. It's coolly astute, and in Atri Banerjee's production, as naggingly compulsive as Insta or TikTok, with Kelly Gough delivering a performance so tense and sharp that you devour it in tense-jawed, goggling fascination.

Lee Curran's neon-bright lighting creates the atmosphere of a poisoned candy shop, and Rosanna Vize's set is a stroke of genius: an enormous stuffed bunny, like some horror dredged from the trash aesthetic of artist Jeff Koons, propped up on a glaring grass-green carpet. As Gough's nameless 39-year-old woman hurtles down a rabbit-hole of trolling, hashtags, attention-seeking and heart emojis, this monstrous creature takes on a nightmarish significance. It's the Lewis Carroll-esque white rabbit she chases through an increasingly dark and topsy turvy digital Wonderland; it's the weight of her overwhelming unhappiness, which she ends up dragging helplessly around the stage. And, as the divisions between her virtual and IRL existences blur, it's a mocking emblem of what she's become: a stalking, tormented obsessive, a "bunny boiler".

The woman is a London estate agent, flogging overpriced houses to young couples who can't afford them, selling illusions of dream homes and gramable lifestyles. Gough plays her with a cynical wit, her armour against her sense of emptiness. She has contempt for her sleazy boss, and even more for her dad's new young wife, who, discomfitingly, is an old schoolmate; her weekends are spent mostly in a drugged sleep. When a successful influencer, Alice, comes to buy a house, the woman becomes fixated. Everything about Alice absorbs her: her flawless style; her handsome, "budget David Gandy" husband; her glamorous career. She wants to destroy her and be her best friend all at once. When she tries, online and off, to do both, the results are carnage, and the galvanising viciousness and hate she discovers on dragging sites, in web comments and in herself is breathtaking.

Gough is riveting, delivering barbed put-downs with a swagger, or squatting on the floor, Gollum-like, hugging her knees and nursing her spite. Pain, panic and neediness lurk behind the curled lip: she's agonisingly torn, one moment gazing at Alice's artfully untidy updo so plump and glossy that she longs to eat it, the next delighting that "Alice's face is so snotty when she cries". Key to her misery is her acute awareness of how shameful her ghastly behaviour is - one of her screen names is SadBitch11 - and we yearn to urge her to stop before it's too late. That's a lesson all of us should probably remember the next we reach for our phones. Grim, glittering and dangerously gripping.

Harm is at the Bush Theatre to 26 June. 

Photo: Kelly Gough in 'Harm' at Bush Theatre (Photo by Isha Shah)

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