REVIEW: A Machine They’re Secretly Building @ Northern Stage

Posted on May 4th 2017 by Whats on Northeast

Words: Roisin Corbett for Cuckoo Review

I must admit, walking into the theatre to take my seat and being faced with the unblinking stares of Rachel Baynton and Gillian Lees, clad in their Pussy Riot-style pink balaclavas, was rather disconcerting. But, with a show such as this one, isn’t that the point?

A Machine They’re Secretly Building is a rather artistic look at surveillance culture through the ages; beginning with the BRUSA Agreement in 1943, through to Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations (from which the play gets its name) and culminating in a speculative idea of what may be still to come.

The most initially striking aspect of the play was just how meticulously researched it was. I doubt any member of the audience left the theatre without learning at least one new fact. This level of detail thankfully mitigated the possibility for melodramatics and enabled the audience to genuinely focus on the facts at hand, instead of worrying about their delivery; which I thought was a fantastic touch.

For only a two woman show, the space of the stage was utilised to its fullest potential. Baynton and Lees were extremely dynamic, and their charisma was the driving force behind the entire show. It is difficult to imagine it being as enjoyable with anyone else in the leading roles. In terms of choreography and interaction, the two women were incredibly in sync, and bounced off each other very well, which lead to a very vibrant performance. The use of onscreen visuals and music (by Adam York Gregory and Paul J. Rogers respectively) was also implemented very well. It did not detract from the performance, nor was it superfluous. Instead it added an interesting backdrop against which Baynton and Lees could shine.

A refreshing aspect was also the blend of humour with a serious subject matter. Use of props, such as a balloon, cling film, and a shot of vodka, lightened the mood to ensure that the play wasn’t just employing scare tactics. After the performance, Baynton and Lees were waiting outside to give each audience member a leaflet, containing quotes from Sir Tim Berners-Lee and useful links for follow up research, which I thought was an inspired touch from an already thought-provoking play.

However, I do have to say that very occasionally, the relatively frequent monologues veered into sentimental territory, which did feel clichéd. This was, however, only brief and given the potential for cliché with this kind of subject matter, it happened far less than I expected it to and didn’t detract much from the overall experience.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Admittedly, when I first heard what it was about I was a touch reticent, but I was very pleasantly surprised. The play definitely fulfilled its goal of making people think, and the refrain ‘This is to keep you safe’, grew more chilling every time it was uttered. I must say, as I left the theatre, deep in thought about my own digital footprint, I had the most unsettling feeling that I was being watched.

This review originally appeared on Cuckoo Review, a site dedicating to developing the skills of young writers in partnership with venues across the North East. For more reviews from young writers, visit the Cuckoo Review website.

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