The Nether

Jennifer Haley
Headlong
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Amanda Hale (Morris), Stanley Townsend (Sims) Credit: Johan Persson
David Beames (Doyle), Amanda Hale (Morris) Credit: Johan Persson
Zoe Brough (Iris), Stanley Townsend (Sims) Credit: Johan Persson

This co-production between Headlong, on behalf of whom Artistic Director Jeremy Herrin takes the helm, and the Royal Court arrives in Sloane Square with impeccable credentials having won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2012.

Jennifer Haley has written a highly intelligent play that explores similar territory to Caryl Churchill's A Number, which first saw the light of day in the same theatre twelve years ago. It takes on big issues and can be as complex as a high-powered game of chess.

The drama opens some time in a dystopian future with the interrogation of Stanley Townsend's Mr Sims (the name is carefully chosen).

This successful online entrepreneur has a pseudonym of Poppa in an American, Victorian era virtual realm, "The Hideaway" peopled by the creations of his fevered imagination, who also perform as avatars.

Some of the subject matter can be deeply disturbing, especially when a sweet little girl of nine entertains the nervous Mr Woodnut.

On one level, this play takes viewers into the murky world of paedophilia but that is only part of the story. Miss Haley also asks us to explore the nature of reality, a topic that is becoming increasingly relevant as we spend vast proportions of our lives in a parallel online world.

The story switches between the stark reality of an interrogation room and the beautiful fantasy land of The Nether, formerly the Internet. Es Devlin has gone overboard with her design, combining magical computer graphics with a tree-lined dream world.

As Amanda Hale's overly involved detective attempts to entrap Sims, real and imaginary become so blurred that it takes considerable concentration to discern which is which.

With by far the most interesting role, Stanley Townsend excels, seemingly getting right under the skin of a man who genuinely believes that he is helping society by giving paedophiles consensual replay in the virtual realm rather than attacking real children, what the playwright has renamed "in-world".

Special praise should also be directed towards 11-year-old Zoe Brough who does a wonderful job in portraying Iris, the best stage role for a young girl since Matilda.

The 80-minute running time comes to an overly abrupt ending but this does not spoil the evening and the intellectual and ethical challenges that it presents to viewers.

The Nether's subject matter can be deeply shocking but unerringly shines a light on the way we live today and might well do so tomorrow. As such, this deeply intelligent play makes for compelling viewing.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher