Sacha Dhawan and Janie Dee in

Lucy Kirkwood's scathing Royal Court debut isn't short of an idea. But the more she extends her satirical proposition, the thinner the drama becomes.

Lucy Kirkwood’s scathing Royal Court debut isn’t short of an idea. “NSFW” — the acronym Not Safe for Work — is a diptych portraying how both male and female magazine editors manipulate women and the readers who lap up their images. Having had the idea of illustrating this by exposing editorial activity at first a men’s, then a women’s magazine, Kirkwood then attempts to flesh out her scenario. But the more she extends her satirical proposition, the thinner the drama becomes.

The boisterous satirical tone is instantly apparent in the comically exaggerated, testosterone-fueled banter of the opening scene between ambitious young writers Rupert (Henry Lloyd Hughes) and Charlotte (Esther Smith) who work at Doghouse, a (fictional) magazine for young men with an appetite for topless women.

With print journalism under threat, the magazine is struggling, but things take an unexpected turn with the appearance of an irate father seeking retribution because the magazine has, unwittingly, published a topless photo-shoot with his daughter, who is only 14.

Conniving editor Aidan (Julian Barratt) attempts to weasel his way out of legal action threatened by the father, Mr. Bradshaw, in a superbly judged performance by Kevin Doyle that simmers with rage and hurt but never boils over. It’s the play’s best scene, with the morals and responsibilities — or lack thereof — of who promotes and consumes such images argued fiercely back and forth.

Yet despite Doyle’s touching authenticity, the scene is over-extended as Kirkwood underlines every point she can make arising from the dilemma. Tonally, too, there’s a problem because her attempt at winning sympathy for true pain is at odds with the ruthless, point-scoring nature of satire.

Furthermore, although she widens the perspective via Charlotte, a young woman at Doghouse, the latter’s underwritten character raises more questions than are answered. Charlotte lies about where she works to her women’s group, which sets her up as an intriguingly compromised feminist, but her dilemma is stated and then largely abandoned.

The other sympathetic character is the impossibly naive Sam (Sacha Dhawan). As written his character wouldn’t last more than two days in this cutthroat world. By trying too hard to fit in with the Doghouse ethos, Sam shoulders responsibility for choosing the damaging photos and winds up sacked in order that the magazine can appear to be contrite. In the second part, he’s found interviewing for a lowly job at Electra.

A magazine for young women trading on presenting “ideal” images of “perfect” bodies, it’s epitomized by Tom Pye’s chic set — editorial office as supremely cool health spa. It’s the antithesis of the scrappy boys-and-their-toys office of Doghouse, thereby perfectly illustrating Kirkwood’s proposition that these two seemingly opposed worlds are philosphically and morally identical.

The case, however, is overstated. Janie Dee does a nicely lethal turn as the no-lapels-no-mercy editrix cooing faux concern with toxic levels of insincerity. But again, Sam’s naivety with her is more necessary for Kirkwood’s exposition than is plausible.

On the plus side, director Simon Godwin keeps the pace moving and his cast wield laugh-out-loud one-liners with satisfying relish. Most of these come via the amusingly appalling behavior of those in power, the result of Kirkwood’s suggestion that much is attributable to British class politics. But like too much of the play, that’s an idea that would have more punch if more tightly written as a sketch.

NSFW

Royal Court Theater, London; 386 seats; £28 $45 top

Production

A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in one act by Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by Simon Godwin.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Tom Pye; lighting, Guy Hoare; sound and music, Ben and Max Ringham; production stage manager, Laura Flowers. Opened, reviewed Nov. 1, 2012. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast

Sam - Sacha Dhawan
Aidan - Julian Barratt
Miranda - Janie Dee
Mr. Bradshaw - Kevin Doyle
Rupert - Henry Lloyd Hughes
Charlotte - Esther Smith

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more