Life in Social Media Compartments
“Now they see a politician speaking in optimistic platitudes, they tune them out – think they’re lying or out of touch – even delusional.”
Set in 2017 a year after the 2016 US election, Christopher Shinn’s play The Narcissist centres around a political advisor called Jim (Harry Lloyd). While the way he uses statistics to bump up clients’ chances of being elected, not unlike our own British political advisor DC, Jim is based in Washington DC. But although politics is the setting, the play is about how we communicate in 2022.
With a startlingly effective set, set designer Jasmine Swan places us in lit, ring fenced compartments to communicate with Jim. It is a brilliant visual memory that will stay with me for ever as it looks beautiful and also serves to delineate our closet interaction style on social media. `
As well as tending to the professional needs of the Senator (Claire Skinner) – no guesses as to who she might be – Jim has others to bat back in messaging. They do not include his newly separated playwright wife.
On reflecting on how their strategy failed at the 2016 election, Jim explains his view that the voters got more cynical and the numbers responding “to that sort of cliché positivity are dwindling.” This is the essence of Jim’s pitch to the female Senator.
This is a play much about the always connected society we have become and although we do not hear the inevitable ping of a message received on mobile phones there is no doubt as to what is going on. Jim is dealing with the demands of many people at the same time including the person with him when his attention is diminished.
Jim is approached by the Waiter (Stuart Thompson) while he is getting messages from his mother (Caroline Gruber), his author friend Kara (Paksie Vernon) and the Senator’s Aide (Akshay Khanna). Jim meets Kara in a bar and Jim explains that his brother Andrew (Simon Lennon) is in hospital after an overdose.
While Jim is with Kara he has a flirtatious series of messages with the Waiter from the earlier scene and responds in kind with an explicit photo. Somehow the excitement of discovering a new acquaintance is focussed through text messaging with only the words and one’s imagination at play and the Waiter is so attractive and unchallenging.
Of course, everyone is asking who is the narcissist of the title but there isn’t one contender but many. All of these characters are looking to their own needs and not those of others. Meanwhile the Senator is being encouraged by Jim to show human weakness to the electorate so that they find her more approachable, more like themselves. Claire Skinner seems to be too soft centred for a hard-nosed political campaigner.
I wanted to meet the playwright wife but she does not appear. The performances from Harry Lloyd as Jim, Stuart Thompson as the Waiter are strong, as is that of Paksie Vernon whom I last saw in Gin Craze. The part of Jim is vast and requires ambivalence. Stuart Thompson is excellent as the Waiter who is charming but ultimately naïve.
I have seen several of Christopher Shinn’s plays, liked them very much and wonder whether this one would have benefitted from an earlier production, which was planned and jettisoned by Covid. His 2008 play Now or Later has some similarities with a scandal associated with an incoming president’s son played by Eddie Redmayne. The first act of The Narcissist demonstrates the directorial skill of Josh Seymour but the second act is disappointing with the shortcomings of the Senator.
There are several of Shinn’s plays which have not been produced in the UK and I would like to see them as he tackles original subjects with an even-handed approach and leaves the audience to decide the rights and wrongs, stimulating debate.
The absolute star of this production at the Minerva in Chichester is Jasmine Swan’s beautifully lit set.
Written by Christopher Shinn
Directed by Josh Seymour
Director: Josh Seymour
Designer: Jasmine Swan
Lighting Designer: Jess Bernberg
Sound Designer: Alexandra Faye Braithwaite
Movement: Chi-San Howard
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Booking until 24th September 2022
Chichester Festival Theatre
Rail : Chichester
Telephone: 01243 781312
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the
Chichester Festival Theatre at a performance
on 30th August 2022