By Luisa De la Concha Montes
Written by Stuart Warwick and produced by Blue Dog Theatre, the play, set in 1984, follows Charles Hawthorne, a British middle-aged man whose job is to censor extreme horror films, also known as ‘video nasties’. The plot takes the audience through a humour-infused trip that explores the many layers of Hawthorne’s self-obsession with power, morality and success.
Charles is an unhappy man. He can’t stand his wife, he is disappointed by his son who he thinks is too fragile, and he barely tolerates his co-workers. When he finds out that his boss James might be ill, a silver lining appears; perhaps this is his opportunity to finally climb the ladder of success. However, his dreams quickly vanish with the appearance of Veronica, a self-assured and sensual Italian woman who embodies everything he is afraid of.
This is an intricate one-man play. Every character is eloquently played by actor Jack Cooper, which allows multiple perspectives to reveal the power dynamics at play. We never see the other characters as they truly are; we only see them as Hawthorne sees them. This means that the whole play delivers a dynamic character development that ultimately reveals Hawthorne’s insecurities, fears and shortcomings.
Humour is a central layer of the narrative. In a similar way in which ‘video nasties’ use gore to take actual human fears to the extreme, the play uses one-dimensional characters to ridicule Hawthorne’s way of interpreting the world around him. Take for instance Hawthorne’s wife Susan, who is the perfect impersonation of the prudish, repressed and dull housewife. There is also Hawthorne’s boss, James, who is the cool kid who markets himself as self-made even though he evidently isn’t. Cooper’s capacity to switch between each character – by changing his voice, accent and body language – is so on-point that the audience is constantly laughing, perhaps seeing some of these characters as reflections of themselves or of people they know.
The set and use of props is minimalist. There is a single chair, a telephone, a film projector and some wine glasses. However, Cooper’s superb performance shows that it is possible to make the most of limited resources by tapping into the viewer’s imagination. For instance, his facial expressions in the opening scene are so realistic that the audience feels tempted to look back to see if the projector is actually showing the film Cooper’s character is supposedly watching.
At times, the sound design feels a bit lacking. The constant use of 80s songs, which sometimes have an abrupt start, contradicts the script’s overall neatness. Perhaps in the scenes leading up to the final conclusion, it would make sense to permit some moments of silence to increase the tension. However, this detail is almost imperceptible and it does not draw away from the play’s narrative strength.
Ultimately, Moral Panic’s main accomplishment is that it utilises and draws together every producion element to create a sharp dissection of Hawthorne’s character, essentially ridiculing outdated British values of superiority, heroism, and domination.
In a time of ideological fragmentation, Moral Panic feels refreshing, poignant and urgent. By allowing a deep investigation of Hawthorne’s character, and the way in which he is a product of the British imaginary, the audience is forced into a dialogue with the past, reminding us that the current culture war being waged against British nationalism did not come out of nowhere.
Moral Panic runs 5-10 July at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith.
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