Tea cosies. Yes, tea cosies. You think you’re in for a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred, eviscerating exposé of how drugs are bought and sold online and it transpires the show is about tea cosies. To be fair it’s a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred eviscerating exposé of how tea cosies are knitted and the kind of people who are involved in this apparently illicit trade but it is tea cosies and it is comforting to know that there is actually someone out there who cares enough about the humble cosy to put it up there on the West End stage.
But obviously, tea cosies are just a cover (did I really just write that?). This play serves as a warning. If you decide to trawl through eBay to see exactly what tea cosies are on offer – three thousand six hundred and fifty-five results, by the way – then you might just fall foul of the clever and nefarious Bruce, the anti-hero of Silk Road, and his (clever and nefarious) Nan. Nan knits; Bruce supplies. Under the guise (cover) of Nan’s colourfully woolly teapot warmers, Bruce supplies his buyers with coke/snow/blow/shit/C/poison/sugar/nose candy or whatever your pet name is for that hipster joyride, cocaine. And he does it – and this is the clever bit – down the Silk Road using untraceable Bitcoin.
Alex Oates’s play is cool and hot at the same time. He lets us in through a crack in the door to the dark web and lets us know that if we weren’t worried about it then we probably should be. There are all sorts going on in there and as is generally the case with the internet, and all sorts, then this, at the moment, is merely the snow on the tip of the iceberg. Oates’s states his case strongly, authentically, but with a fair few lines of humour to make it fast in our minds.
And in this, he has an able collaborator in Josh Barrow as Bruce. This is a one-person show but it is not a one character show. We have Nan, of course, and the Girl, the Oklahoma! singing bouncer, Mr Shaggy a club owner, the Oxbridge wanker, and the inevitable stars-in-her-eyes gawky girl. And Barrow portrays all these with delectable precision and observation, flitting from one to another without a beat, like a butterfly that’s partaken of a stronger than normal strength nectar. Snarling, pouting, raging, simpering, laughing, crying, lurching from the jubilantly triumphant to the jarringly despondent and back again before you can say SWIM (no spoilers).
In Barrow’s presence we are his junkies, the more he gives us the more we want, he’s our dealer and he deals in excitement – the excitement of real drama, up close and personal, in your face and right through to your gut. It’s an extraordinary performance – one that leaves you thinking “What’s he on?”.
Adrenaline only, I would suggest, as you couldn’t create that kind of subtlety, that kind of truth, if there was anything to cloud your vision. One of the most telling moments is when, reacting to Nan’s nagging about girlfriends, Bruce returns from a club having secured The Girl: as he switches to Nan’s chair his expression – Nan’s wordless expression of “I know what you’ve been up to” – is one of sheer brilliance. This is a performer of rare quality.
The combination of outstanding script and extraordinary acting shows that Silk Road is not merely about drugs and the Dark Web: it’s much more about relationships – Bruce and his Nan in particular and the love story of Bruce and the Girl. This is a difficult scenario to pull off with only one performer but the great writing – The Girl is described as “hanging like a dream-catcher in the kitchen” combined with Barrow’s innate ability to empathise with the very varied characters he is creating – make it happen.
Trafalgar Studio 2 is an optimal setting for the show and – in a challenging space to light with the audience on three sides of the floor-level thrust – Rachel Sampley’s design is effectively complementary and works a treat.
Director Dominic Shaw clearly knows how to get the best out of script and performer allowing Barrow just enough rope so that he pulls up short of hanging himself. This is a great show so do go and see it if you can – particularly if you are a tea cosy fetichist and are the sort of person who gets up on class A… knitting.
Review by Peter Yates
Meet Bruce Blakemore, a struggling young Geordie tech-head and the unlikeliest international criminal mastermind you can imagine. From his base in Whitley Bay, Bruce and his Nan will find themselves sucked into an Underworld Wide Web of new-age pirates, local gangsters and tea-cosies. Join a host of unforgettable characters in this 5-star ‘rollercoaster of emotion’ (Broadway World) pitch-black comedy for the Bitcoin generation which ‘captures the sinister beauty of the anarchic dark web’ (4* West End Wilma)
Inspired by interviews with real online drug vendors, Alex Oates (BBC3, Eastenders E20, Old Vic New Voices) has written an urgent new piece about the freedoms and dangers of an unrestricted “Dark-Web”. Following critically acclaimed performances at the Vaults and making history in 2014 as the first show ever funded by the crypto currency, Bitcoin, Silk Road stars Josh Barrow and is directed by Dominic Shaw.
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