Guest reviewer: Ellen Casey
In Conversation With Graham Norton explains itself fairly succinctly in its title – Mark desperately needs someone to talk to and the only person he can find happens to be a framed photo of Graham Norton, balanced on a radio. Through the 55-minute runtime we hear Mark’s inner monologue as he ranges from subjects such as hot men in tight shirts to cats’ bumholes, to the darker sides of the internet. In Conversation is a portrait of a boy unravelling, uncertain of everything except his own loneliness and isolation.
A lot of the pathos here comes from the way Mark expresses himself to Graham, his only sounding board. The language may be a little sophisticated for a teenager but you can forgive that oversight because of what it brings to the play: a crystal clear voice and a sympathetically drawn driving force. However, some logistical problems do spring from Mark being from Generation Z. The references to Instagram and Shazam feel shoehorned in as a clumsy appeal to millennials – instead of truly diving into the changes in bullying styles from the pre-internet age to post, there’s just a thin veneer of 21st Century terminology over a story which could easily come from 1985.
I actually couldn’t pinpoint where we were in time until a very short section that included a reference to people taking selfies and liking Instagram posts – there’s no other mention of Mark being victimised via the internet, despite the fact that it’s the foremost way to be petty and mean nowadays, and especially for a generation that grew up living their lives online as much as IRL. It unfortunately makes the whole play feel like it was written twenty years ago and then very lightly tweaked to become relevant. In fact, setting this story in the decade it was clearly meant to be in would go some ways to improving it – and remove the need to awkwardly explain away the use of 80s dance tunes instead of some more modern anthems.
There are laughs here, helped along massively by the twitchy, naïve performance given by Jay Parsons, who skilfully makes the early discussions of getting erections on the Tube walk the delicate line between tragedy and comedy. There are also some excellent sketch-like interludes where Parson switches between Mark and some interloper – an awkward conversation with his Dad and being caught mid-sensitive moment by his sister are both play-acted well and raise laughs. However, the early laughs make the tonal shift later in the performance feel all the more abrupt. The emotion that we’re meant to be feeling in the last portion of the play feels unnatural when contrasted with the silliness that’s come before – this might be the fault of the shorter runtime, but at points towards the end it feels like we’re running through a checklist. The absurdity of it all is where In Conversation really shines, and though there are transitions that feel clunky, there’s a lot to be said for the sensitive portrait of the ridiculousness of a teenage mind.
My verdict? Well-acted but too confused, both in tone and time.
In Conversation With Graham Norton runs at The Hope Theatre until 26 January 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.