Immediately after settling into the ominous Vault’s venue that is the Cavern, I begin to have a creeping sense of terror. I am sitting on a creaking wooden bench, looking across at a mirrored row of audience members, who are looking back at me, just as anxious. Because of this, I am immediately struck by how easily Flux Theatre’s Something Awful seems to convey a thing or two about the horrors of watching, and being watched.
Something Awful (written by Tatty Hennessey and directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson) is loosely based upon the 2014 Slenderman stabbing case, which saw two 12 year old girls stabbing their mutual friend in the name of the internet-created myth of the Slenderman (a tall humanoid figure whom stalks the woods and preys on children). This piece sees this real life case play out with the grown-up and devious Ellie (Melissa Parker), taking bookish internet historian Soph (Natalya Martin), deeper down the rabbit hole of their mutual obsession with The Whistling Axeman, a mythical murderer stalking their town. True to life, this play ultimately ends with the two poised to stab their friend, the innocent and childish Jel (Monica Anne), in the hope of making The Axeman appear.
Being a child of the internet myself, I am immediately able to pick up on all the references made by Hennessey’s play. Characters bring up classic creepy internet lore such as, ‘I Feel Fantastic’, ‘The Slit Mouth Woman’ and ‘The Russian Sleep Experiment’. However, I feel like it’s my familiarity with these stories that ultimately leads to my disappointment with the play. Despite the marketing making explicit references to Slendy, in Hennessey’s piece, his replacement by the fictional Axeman takes all the bite out of the horrific implications of the 2014 Slenderman incident. The girls in the real case, stabbed their friend to become ‘minions’ or ‘proxies’ of the ‘deity’ of Slenderman. They believed this like a religion, due to years and years of internet frenzy, in which people all over the world developed and fantasized MASSIVE amounts of lore for Slendy, making him feel very, very real. The Axeman, as a homebrew figure in this universe, doesn’t have that same power here, and it’s nowhere near the scale the play needs to get us to view Jel’s eventual murder as tragically understandable. Moreover, the reasons given for killing Jel seem half-hearted. The girls mention that perhaps the Axeman is a ‘protector’ figure, despite the play describing him as someone who does in fact massacre sheep. So Ellie and Soph’s decision to kill their friend feels completely out of left field and irrational, from characters who were very clearly established (by Hennessey’s knack for dialogue) as complex and level-headed. Moreover, the majority of the run time of the piece is focused on establishing the strong relationship between the 3 girls before pulling the rug out from under us in the last five minutes which furthers this “wait…what! why!?” feeling.
The piece also suffers from tension breaking blackout scene-changes and table shuffling that really to the detriment of any play that wants to build a rising sense of unbroken dread.
Despite this underwhelming climax and somewhat awkward staging, Something Awful does a wonderful job of establishing a tight sense of friendship between its cast. I did truly feel bad for all three of these girls who are desperately trying to find their way through the abyss between girlhood and womanhood. Monica Anne gives a beautiful and tender performance as the naive Jel who, in her inability to cross that gap, falls. Tone as well is very well established. This is due largely to the beautiful sound design by Sam Glossop, whose score is a haunting choir of the damned and, for me, was the most chilling aspect of the piece.
Overall, the play left me with an appreciation for the power of fiction and its impact on reality, even when that power takes a turn for the dark and unthinkable.
Author: Tatty Hennessey
Director: Lucy Jane Atkinson
Booking Link: https://vaultfestival.com/whats-on/something-awful/
Booking Until: 2 February 2020