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Self Tape at King’s Head Theatre

Why would anyone want to be an actor? You pay an absolute fortune to a school or university for training and at the end of it, whilst the odd one goes on to make millions in film or TV, the majority end up out of work and doing whatever they need to in order to make ends meet. This is certainly the case for the main character in Self Tape, a new monodrama that has been at the Kings’ Head Theatre as part of their Queer Interrogation series.

Self Tape - Credit Bonnie Britain.
Self Tape – Credit Bonnie Britain.

Jonas (Michael Batten) is a young actor continually on the cusp of having something amazing happen in his life. It’s true that the relationship with his husband has gone from the initial flaming passion of love and desire to something altogether more domestic, which often leaves Jonas feeling alone in the world. But it’s okay because his agent is continually putting him forward for various jobs. Unfortunately, these seem to be advertisements, but every call is an opportunity for a good-looking man with great hair, his own teeth, a nice body, and a winning smile, isn’t it? So far, the cards haven’t fallen in Jonas’ favour and until they do, he has to find some other way of earning a living that makes the best use of his attributes. So Jonas – unbeknown to everyone else – has a page online on one of those sites, where people pay to be entertained, and have their fantasies fulfilled, in a very personal and very erotic way. Jonas doesn’t much like this work, but it can be quite lucrative and brings in the money. Jonas has one client that is particularly keen on him. Tony (voiced by Neil Burgess) is based overseas and likes to interact with Jonas daily. That’s fine for him. He receives the money and as Tony is overseas, there is no chance of the two of them meeting and putting any further strain or complications in Jonas’ world.

Not only does Michael Batten play the role of Jonas he also wrote Self Tape and that really shows in his portrayal of the young man. And Jonas is a very interesting person. There’s a mass of contradictions within him. As he records the advert auditions, he comes across as warm and confident when he talks to the audience, giving us an insight into the way his mind works, he is funny and playful, when he is alone and scared, he is young and vulnerable and when he is providing his special service, he is, well whatever the client wants him to be. Batten really knows every inch of Jonas’ character and is totally at ease with whatever he does in the story. This makes it easy for the audience to follow Jonas as his world starts to unravel. However, I am not going to go into too much detail as you need to see and be with Jonas to fully understand what he goes through. All I will say is that while the ending may have been slightly inevitable, the script and acting meant we all arrived at that point heavily invested in this man we had only met some seventy minutes ago.

I have to say that Self Tape is not a conventional story going from A-Z via B, C, etc, and there were, for me, various unanswered questions within the story that really made me want it to be longer. Again no spoilers, but when the show finished, I had my own ideas on the “Who” and “What” but no idea on the “Why.” Unfortunately, I will never know if I was right, and that’s another intriguing part of the writing. Unlike many plays, where you get to know everything you need to know, with Self Tape, Jonas still has secrets and, as an audience member, you can only guess the answers to your question.

Director Scott Le Crass uses the thrust stage beautifully, and I really loved the stage set – with the slightly raised floor made of glass bricks. There were lovely little touches to the direction – such as putting his mum’s picture face-down before going online – that give an insight into Jonas’ mind without words. And I really appreciated the fact that when Jonas recorded his auditions, he really did, with the phone being on video and the recording button pressed. It’s a small thing, but these little touches are often missed as creatives forget just how close the audience are in smaller theatres, and I’m really glad Scott went down to that level of detail. Joseph Bryant’s lighting is also really effective going from a full illumination to Jonas appearing to be only illuminated by the screen of his laptop as he goes private with the clients.

Self Tape does leave you with some interesting questions to ask yourself. For example, why does society look down on porn and people that perform either online or in real life? Is an actor playing a mass murderer like Stalin to an audience they cannot see any worse than one that says things they don’t believe in so that someone a thousand miles away can get sexual enjoyment? Acting is about making others believe in the character you show them, whether that’s in the West End or Only Fans the skill set is pretty much the same. Hypothetically, if we rebranded “Only Friends” as an interactive and immersive theatre experience on a one-to-one basis, would it be more acceptable to society? This is one time I really wished my plus one hadn’t cancelled last minute as I think we would still be debating these points this morning.

Overall, Self Tape is really, really good. Michael Batten has authored a fascinating story that you believe from the first mayonnaise-strewn chicken piece minute to the lights going down. I would have liked it to be longer and go into more details around the sub-plot, but like most of Jonas’ clients, I left the theatre having had a very absorbing and satisfying experience.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

“What happens when you’re in your thirties and your dreams have vanished?”

From self-tape auditions to performing as a gay webcam model, what price will Jonas Harland – a jobbing-actor & council-estate boy ‘done good’ – pay in his attempts to win the career he has always dreamt of? Money may be tight, but is it worth sacrificing his peace of mind, his personal relationships and the little joy that remains, for the risk of exposure as he descends into the world of cyber-sex?

Self Tape explores modern relationships; in-person & virtual, aiming to break the manifold taboos of sex-work. Written during lockdown, a period that saw an exponential rise in the camming industry, the piece holds a mirror up to contemporary society.

Jonas Harland | Michael Batten
Tony | Neil Burgess (pre-recorded role)

Writer | Michael Batten
Director | Scott Le Crass
Video Design | Henry Button
Sound Design | Julian Starr
Lighting Design | Joseph Bryant
Production Photography | Bonnie Britain

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