Something Awful, VAULT Festival

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by Evangeline Cullingworth

Soph (Natalya Martin) and Jel (Monica Anne) are pouring over creepypasta horror stories at break time and catch the attention of Ellie (Melissa Parker), the new girl in school who wears her phone in her shirt pocket like a sheet of armor. Their interest become fixations, and what begins with giggles and goosebumps quickly reaches dramatic heights. Something Awful perfectly recreates some of the most memorable times at school, the battles fought over playground loyalties, the fanatic scrutiny of gossip and the stories told in ravishing detail. The breakneck thrill of the internet adds to this nostalgia to create a stomach dropping tragedy.

Tatty Hennessy’s sharp writing captures the aggression unique to school girls – the biting blows and dramatic claims. Teenagers move at a very fast pace, and the way the relationships between these three characters change, burn out or flare up ties in perfectly with the way the girls flick between their realities and fantasies online. Lucy Jane Atkinson directs with great care and precision, accurately capturing the confidence and nonchalance with which the girls climb into the internet and how it quickly gives way to awe and fear. At first these stories seem too big for the girls, but as we go from classrooms to sleepovers, what was once ridiculous becomes very real. This is a shattering example of how fast the power of the internet can take over.

Sam Glossop’s sound design sits uncomfortably close to the back of your neck, rumbling underneath the creepypasta stories that are brought to life. It works with Holly Ellis’ lighting design to both recreate the vivid curiosity the girls have for the horror stories they discover, and lead the audience into the same state of tension and fear.

In a tender moment at a sleepover, Ellie and Soph seek solace in each other, trying to fight against the identities they feel the world has forced on them. “When I was nine and pretty I was one thing, but now I’m thirteen and pretty I’m another.” This is a clear  insight that reveals the pressure on teenage girls struggling to find themselves in a world that tells them who they are, who they should be or who they should want to be. The strength of her new friendship cracks open a world of possibilities for Soph, previously resigned to the role of nerd, and powerless against the violence erupting from her own body as she starts her period. This perilous coming-of-age is given a brilliant performance by Martin. Parker is captivating as the mysterious ringleader Ellie, swearing multiple times on her mum’s life but never revealing why her mother is absent. Caught between them, Jel counters the forum posts with horror stories of personal data sold on the dark web pressed on her by her mum. Monica Anne captures a bright intelligence underneath a nervous exterior in a fantastic performance. Something Awful races its audience along, and this strong ensemble deftly encounters each twist and turn.

We are left on a cliff edge at the end, and while there is no need for denouement we lose some of the frenzied fervor that leads to the terrible conclusion. What’s happening to the young people who are growing up in two places at once, in real life and online? The internet gives us an illusion of action without consequences, and the stories and fantasies we create are appearing more and more real-life-like. Since the true incident that inspired this play, it has become clearer that the speed at which the internet is developing matches only that with which young people are confronting the world, and the systems designed to protect them can’t always keep up.

Something Awful runs through 2 February.

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