Review: IRL (La Boite Theatre)

Infused with a frenetic energy, IRL moves at the speed of a freight train. It’s a parallel to the way life flies by on social media, how everything can seem more real and more urgent if there’s a chance you might be missing out on something important. In the case of this story, it might just be true love. 

On the surface, IRL is a quirky meet-cute between Alexei (Will Bartolo) and Thaddeus (Byron Lankester Howells) gone sideways, but Lewis Treston’s play is much more than a modern rewrite of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. It’s about the confusion of being a teenager (let alone a gay teenager), how we as a society have been subsumed by the ubiquity of popular culture, and how this has blurred the lines between reality and what we perceive to be reality. 

Alexei and Thaddeus meet online, and the frantic pace of their back and forth is exacerbated by a flurry of notification “dings” — until Thaddeus disappears (he’s dragged into a conversation with his mother in real life). The constant and consistent use of emojis that punctuate their messages bring an added layer of absurdity to this way of communicating that is now so embedded in our lives. Hearing the descriptions of multiple emojis read out loud in quick succession is darkly humorous and a heady reminder of the way these small pictures are now so commonly used as a substitution for real human connection. 

We’re also introduced to Alexei’s bestie, Taylor (Rachel Nutchey). She’s been living the high life as an up and coming actor, but absorbing all the stresses that come with it. Taylor is Alexei’s ticket into Supanova, where he plans to meet Thaddeus in real life for the first time. Supanova, we understand, is a place where people don’t have to be their real selves. In fact, people are punished for doing so, a grotesque reversal of an ever-increasing insistence for children and teenagers to be more grounded in the world outside their phones and computers.

Byron Lankester Howells, Rachel Nutchey, and Will Bartolo in IRL. Image: Morgan Roberts

Nutchey is brilliantly heartbreaking as Taylor, whose character is a comment on the disposable nature of young actors, especially in the eyes of big media companies. It’s not surprising, then, that just as Alexei finds escape in cosplay, Taylor escapes into her head – but even here, the action and absurdity never stops. Sound by Wil Hughes and lighting by Ben Hughes add to this feeling of hyperreality, which provide a strong contrast to the play’s brief moments of stillness. It is slightly quieter and calmer when Alexei gets Thaddeus to say the word “gay” out loud, when Thaddeus asks Alexei to check the text he wants to send to come out to his mother. These tender and sweet scenes seem slower, but is it just because they’re a little bit more real? 

Anthony Spinaze’s set and costumes match Bartolo, Lankester Howells, and Nutchey’s energy. The set’s main backdrop is a pearly white with three doors cut into it, which rotates around, revealing and concealing as appropriate. This further highlights the bright pops of colour in the rest of Spinaze’s design, as well as through the characters’ clothing. Everything is a little more over-the-top, more poofy, more unbelievable – but isn’t this exactly what happens when you allow yourself to get sucked into a world that has come from someone else’s imagination? 

In less adept hands, IRL may have turned into an uncontrollable whirlwind, but clever and incisive directing from Sanja Simić means this frenzy of a production is both very serious and very funny. A mind-controlled Taylor scouring Supanova, stealing attendees’ costumes and rendering them naked is played for laughs, but at the play’s climax, when a flood of costumes is dumped onto the stage, it is clear that has, in fact, been an attempt at a physical stripping away of the branded facades we put on to escape from the real world, from what really matters. 

It’s also clear that all this pretending is exhausting. Bartolo, Lankester Howells, and Nutchey run on, off, and around the stage, chasing each other and avoiding security guards, and it’s honestly impressive that Bartolo does a lot of this running in heels. 

It’s easy to satirise popular culture, but that’s not what IRL is trying to do. Instead, a considered critique of capitalism underpins this production, focusing on the hype around popular culture, who this benefits, and what it’s doing to us as individuals. The actors in these shows and movies are complicit, too, whether they like it or not – Taylor’s stunt at Supanova leads to a positive change in her career that she is all too willing to accept. 

This, then, is perhaps the ugly reality of the popular culture we all know and love. Under the facade of brightly coloured advertising and blockbuster movies is the reality that these companies are maximising their profit margins by monetising imagination – and this is something that really is no laughing matter. 

Despite this sobering realisation, IRL is still funny, relatable, and ironically, a great way to spend a night away from the realities of the world in which we currently live. 

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