The Nobodies playwright Amy Guyler has once again written a dark, unsettling story in which ordinary people are corrupted by unthinkable opportunities. In her latest collaboration with Chalk Line Theatre, Poison, Hate and Vitriol explores the extremities of an outrage industry exploited by the likes of Andrew Tate and Katie Hopkins through the lens of a crumbling marriage, demonstrating how one seed of hate can grow into something far more intoxicating.
Kelly (Tiffany Clare) is our narrator, a former BAFTA-nominated journalist goaded by her Guardian writer husband Jaz (Anish Roy) into creating an online person known as Sharon, a venomous commentator who soon spews bile about vaccines, benefits claimants, asylum seekers and more. As Kelly, Clare displays formidable emotional range as “the kid”, Sharon and her faltering relationship with Jaz all put a strain on her psyche. As the pink headband-wearing Sharon, the actor deploys the same sarcastic tone we see in Kel, but with a far more menacing squinting of the eyes and forced smile. The seamless transition from Kelly to Sharon as the hate consumes her is properly haunting.
Kelly shares what is obviously her version of events through conversations with her marriage counsellor, and at times we see the character rewrite the story in the moment to be more realistic, but I wish there was more to underscore how unreliable and untrustworthy a narrator Kelly is. The aforementioned revisionism is one way in which this is implied, but a far more intriguing point is how Jaz is portrayed by Roy. We see him inhabit the behaviours of a child as he nags Kelly repeatedly, chases her around the table and at one point has a full-on temper tantrum. Considering a fair amount of Kelly’s animosity towards Jaz comes around his handling of her pregnancy and miscarriage, her painting him as a child is a clever continuation of the theme, even if it is incredibly sinister.
The issue, however, is that this isn’t consistent. There are moments where both characters are incredibly serious – and rightly so – in discussing the ramifications of Sharon’s hateful actions, but Jaz’s abrupt appearance as a responsible adult, and his sudden change of heart from enthusiastic to fearful of the Sharon project when the lines between the fictional and the real, feels unusual and out-of-place in terms of pacing when we are otherwise accustomed to him being childish in nature.
Also, I don’t think it’s appropriate to dismiss some of the play’s faults as the actions of an unreliable narrator, as some of the dialogue comes across as too on-the-nose. Jaz is obsessed with writing his “exposé”, a word I feel is rarely uttered by fellow journalists these days – at least not by writers at The Guardian. At a stretch, it’s maybe used by the tabloids, but I reckon ‘scoop’ or ‘investigation’ would be more accurate.
Another example is Kelly’s obsession with hidden cameras and subterfuge, a tired stereotypical cliché of an investigative journalist when the use of them in reporting is tightly controlled. This does, however, lead to a shocking plot twist from Guyler which is genuinely jaw-dropping in its execution, and comes when Kelly turns the tables (quite literally, in fact) on her husband.
As director, Vikesh Godwhani is playful and provocative with the pair’s childish power dynamics, using Lego blocks and plushies to convey the infantile nature of Sharon’s persona, and the duo’s parental dispute. This uncomfortable play is all too timely in its commentary on controversial personalities, and devastating in how the building blocks of romance can so soon fall apart.
Poison, Hate and Vitriol is now playing at VAULT Festival until 5 March. A relaxed matinee performance will take place on 4 March.
Production Images: Chalk Line Theatre.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Poison, Hate and Vitriol’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.