After more than a year overwhelmingly spent lurking indoors, phone gripped in one claw-like hand, the other scrolling into oblivion, eyes trained on a tiny screen, we’re all probably more familiar than we’d like to be with the fizzy cadences of influencer-speak: the unremitting positivity (#blessed), the carefully staged intimacy, the reminders to like, subscribe and tap for brands.
It’s a language that writer Phoebe Eclair-Powell perfectly captures - and cleverly skewers - in Harm, a monologue charting one millennial woman’s spiralling obsession with a shiny Instagram star, which was originally meant to debut at the Bush Theatre last year (a filmed version aired on BBC Four as part of its Lights Up season in April).
As Kelly Gough sidles onto the stage, which is presided over by a giant plush rabbit, it’s clear that all is not well with our unnamed narrator: her self-deprecation is viciously lacerating and her grin is a few seconds away from turning rictus. As an estate agent, she spends her days showing photogenic couples around overpriced, forever “up and coming” corners of South London; nights are devoted to YouTube and documentaries about serial killers.
When she meets Alice, a “lifestyle, travel, fashion” influencer who’s scoping out an expensive townhouse to fill with Kilner jars and Made.com furniture, she’s thrilled that this woman with more than one million followers is apparently inviting her into her charmed life (endless #gifted items, a baby on the way, an Aussie husband who has found his own niche shilling protein powder on the ‘gram).
Their increasingly one-sided friendship quickly festers into something more disturbing. Logging on to a forum devoted to picking apart social media stars (surely not-so loosely based on the real-life website Tattle Life), the narrator uses the alias “sadbitch11” (“because 10 other people had that name already”) to tear down her idol, becoming the queen bee of her own digital netherworld.
It’s hard to look away from Gough, who skips effortlessly from the narrator’s painfully ironic detachment into sing-song Insta-speak at speed, and gives life to a cast of characters that we never see on stage (like her creepy boss, or the step-mother, just two years above her at school, who lives out of town and keeps booking them onto embarrassingly themed afternoon teas in a misjudged attempt at bonding). Pacing the stage and contorting herself into awkward shapes around a phantom phone, she seems to hum with restless energy, fired up by the dopamine hit of a new social media post.
Her performance carries the play’s more melodramatic final twists, which don’t always ring true. With their selfies and earnest captions, Instagrammers are an easy target for satire, but Harm is at its most incisive when it probes the queasy phenomenon of hate-following, and the disproportionate vitriol that influencers can elicit from their most engaged followers. This is a sharp, bracing and extremely online cautionary tale that might just put you off infinite scrolling - at least temporarily.
Until June 26. www.bushtheatre.co.uk