All good things must come to an end, according to the old adage. Most bands that find themselves in each other’s faces for long periods end up splitting up, for instance, and one of the many reasons why The Rolling Stones have endured, aside from their sheer skill and commitment to their cause, is that there is room in their schedule for time away from the band. Will Pinhey (Glen), his brother Kieran (Ben Mallett) and their friend Tammy (Franci Donovan-Brady) are in an altogether different sort of group, a computer game team called ‘Cotton’ – hence the name of the play.
This is a script written by a millennial (Alex Benjamin) and performed by millennials – Alan (George Fincher) looks ludicrously young to be Glen and Kieran’s father, but hey, let’s suspend disbelief at the theatre door. The intergenerational element demonstrates well that this is a topic that doesn’t just affect millennials. Rest assured, no prior knowledge of the computer gaming industry, or of gaming tournaments, is required to understand what goes on in this play. It’s more about escapism versus reality, and it could just as well have been about motor racing, or football, or anything that becomes all-consuming and takes over one’s life.
I wonder what professional gamers themselves will make of a show like this. It is quite possible to forge a career of sorts out of playing computer games, though the level of skill required does indeed mean one needs to say goodbye to any sort of social life to obsessively concentrate on getting incrementally better. But what was fun and exhilarating for Kieran years ago is now more of a chore, and the pressures that accompany participation – and competition – at a professional level start taking their toll.
A subplot involving Tammy and a number of online trolls making disparaging comments about her looks and gender could have been treated with slightly more depth. It’s been many years now since I tried to make some sense of Championship Manager on a PC running on Windows 98, and I have never owned a console. I doubt whether I could differentiate between a Wii and a modem. Despite computer gaming being other-worldly for many people, the dialogue is relatable, the passions quite palpable, and the emotions and frustrations of the characters clearly evident. Indeed, it was so absorbing I rather got lost in the moment, so to speak – rather like a professional gamer would while a game is in progress.
At the heart of the problem for Kieran, and others seems to be the inability to switch off. This isn’t a desk job done from a reasonable hour in the morning to a reasonable hour in the early evening, with a lunch break somewhere in between. The story of a woodcutter, so often used in motivational speeches, comes to mind: an employee, furnished with an axe, gets less efficient over time before he was asked when he last sharpened his axe. “I don’t have time to sharpen my axe. I’m busy cutting trees.”
The sound balance between the piped in music and the spoken dialogue was not always perfectly balanced, at least not from my vantage point, though some of this may have been deliberate, in an attempt to portray the noise and busyness of a gaming convention. Ironically, the devastating impact of gaming on the young in this show made me think of some of gaming’s benefits, particularly a King’s College London study that found that playing games can improve cognitive functions, reducing the risk of dementia in later life. This is an intense and vibrant production, a twenty-first century story for a twenty-first century audience.
Review by Chris Omaweng
When their team disbands after a devastating loss, three professional gamers are thrown back into a life that never made sense to them. They’ve got to make it in the real world – but how much of a ‘real world’ is there left for them?
A blistering piece of new writing about growing up in a world that’s changing too quickly to keep up with itself.
Booking to 8th August 2017
Hen and Chickens