Review: NSFW, Royal Court

“This is not that sort of publication”

I’m rarely lost for an opinion, but I am struggling to decide what I really thought of Lucy Kirkwood’s new play for the Royal Court, the search-term-baiting NSFW (not safe for work). In its 80 minutes, it rips through the way in which magazine industry portrays its images of women from two wildly differing perspectives, both equally entertaining but troubling. But after the attitudes from both ends of the spectrum are laid bare in all their misogynistic glory, the play ends rather than delving deeper into the world that allows this to happen.

The journey there is interesting and insightful, even if I didn’t find it quite as funny as some of those around me (it is actually billed as a “timely new comedy”). In the garishly decorated offices of weekly lad’s mag Doghouse, a huge topless picture of Carrie – their Local Lovely 2012 – is given pride of place to celebrate an upturn in circulation. The mood quickly sinks though as it emerges that Carrie is just 14 and is unaware that her photo was submitted by her boyfriend and a serious damage limitation exercise is instituted. 

Kirkwood astutely points out the impossibility of stereotyping the people behind the scenes, as in a world where print journalism is constantly under threat, any job as a journalist will serve the purpose, no matter what the title. So under Julian Barratt’s uneasily shifting editor, a mixture of blokish forced affability desperately trying to be hip and a predatory business-oriented mind unafraid of tearing an outraged father to shreds, there’s a surprising mixture of budding writers, including Henry Lloyd Hughes’ Sloaney trustafarian and Esther Smith’s bright young Charlotte, who lies to her feminist friends about where she works, a job is a job and they can each rationalise their decision to work there.

And trying to make the best of a bad job, they close ranks in hideous self-justification, divorcing themselves of all responsibility and blaming the culture. We then get a different take on that same culture as we switch to the much more elegant surroundings of Electra, a women’s weekly (but not Women’s Weekly!), 9 months down the line. Sam, an intern who lost his job at Doghouse as the one responsible for the boob about the boobs, is having a job interview with editor Miranda (not Priestley), Janie Dee in fabulous full-on glamazon mode.

Desperate for the work, he submits himself to the task that she sets of identifying the many ‘imperfections’ in a picture of a famous actress and when he can’t, or won’t, do it, she probes deep into his personal life to get him to do the same with the idealised image of the now-departed love of his life to prove to him that no woman is perfect. Sacha Dhawan plays Sam perfectly, weighing up his conscience against the need to work (even if he isn’t quite the image of the working class boy specified in the text) and the irony inherent in the attitudes at this new place is bitterly held, especially with the final image of the show, and buzzes with contemporary resonance.  

But at the same time as appreciating it, it left me wanting something more: a wider sense of the context in which these publications operate perhaps, to give a more brutal bite to the message about the society in which all of this is permitted and even endorsed. But Tom Pye’s set transforms magnificently, Kirkwood’s writing is gloriously sharp in many places and judging it for what it is, rather than the pointless exercise of I think it could be, it is a strong piece of theatre. 

Running time: 80 minutes
Booking until 24th November

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