November 2, 2012 6:36 pm

NSFW, Royal Court Theatre, London

A crisis over an under-age pin-up touches on the damaging culture of objectification and aspiration fostered by the press
Henry Lloyd-Hughes and Sacha Dhawan in ‘NSFW’ at the Royal Court©Stephen Cummiskey

Henry Lloyd-Hughes and Sacha Dhawan in ‘NSFW’ at the Royal Court

The Royal Court has had some remarkable strokes of good luck on the topicality front. Surely no one could have foreseen the Jimmy Savile scandal shivering the timbers of every bulwark of British society just at the opening of Lucy Kirkwood’s new play (whose title is an abbreviation of “Not Suitable For Work”, a label attached to risqué emails and the like).

Kirkwood’s play concentrates on the print media, a sector that has so far (and unconvincingly) resisted being thus shivered. Having introduced her crisis – a topless pin-up in a lads’ magazine turns out to be under-age – she swiftly branches out into wider issues.

What she is concerned to show is the offensive and damaging culture of objectification and unrealistic aspiration fostered by all sections of the press. She follows the scene of confrontation between the lads’ mag editor and the girl’s father with an encounter set several months later. The naïve junior staffer scapegoated for the pin-up affair is now applying for a minor post at an upmarket women’s title; he discovers that Electra magazine’s ideology of perfection-as-lifestyle-goal is as manipulative and harmful to its “upscale” readers as Doghouse magazine’s slant is to its “troglodyte” constituency. There is a tacit conspiracy to keep us all unsatisfied with ourselves.

The play’s most significant weakness lies with its “right-minded” antagonists. Both the father and the young journo are stereotypical underdog figures, blatantly fishing for our identification with them before each in turn capitulates. A more fluid dynamic would be much more interesting – as it is for a few minutes when Doghouse’s editor (Julian Barratt) voices some quite Luciferic arguments about the culture in general, before moving back into conventional demonic territory.

Barratt’s absence-of-acting acting style, which irked me earlier, is what makes this overt bastardhood work. As Electra’s editor, Janie Dee plays perhaps the most unpleasant role I have ever seen her take: not quite the devil in Prada, but certainly a chic succubus with an empty smile. If Kirkwood had seriously indicted our wider hypocrisy as well as the media’s, this play would have been brilliant. As it is, we can pretend that it’s not really about us as an audience.

4 stars

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