This review will consider The Emoji Project, which was staged at the Hen & Chickens Theatre and streamed online.
I am not sure how this performance was constructed, but I imagine someone said to the various writers involved, "Write something inspired by emojis! Go!" At least, that is what it felt like when I watched The Emoji Project. And I rather hope that this is, indeed, what happened, because if the writings were conceived and compiled as they are deliberately, I would have to question Ariella Como Stoian (responsible for the production's creative concept and dramaturgy) on her methods.
The Emoji Project has some really great and comical moments, and the entire cast perform throughout with vigour and energy, but I am afraid that a mere theme of emojis is not enough to group these plays together as they are currently grouped. Some texts, such as the several 'Monkey' texts by Tilney Brune or 'You Wake Up / Octopus' by Stoian, are difficult to relate to emojis at all. Whilst they both certainly deal with emotions and language, they bear very little relevance, if any at all, to emojis specifically.
I have quite a big issue with 'Octopus', in fact. One expects to experience a variety of performance styles, modes and genres when presented with an anthology of dramatic texts, but one also expects there to be a palpable limit on this variation, and managing this limitation was Stoian's job here. 'Octopus' is far too different from the other texts, both in regard to its decided performance style and to its content. It simply has nothing to do with emojis, and whist the contents of the other texts differ considerably, they are still related in some way or another, notably by realism and by actor presence — and, of course, through theme. The disembodied voices of the performers of 'Octopus', the void created by the darkness of the stage, the lights used in lieu of the human body [mostly], these elements and others make this play too distinctly separate from the rest. It is a beautifully devised and well-written piece, I should clarify –– in fact, I think it is the strongest of them all, a very powerful and visceral text –– but it has no place whatsoever in this collection.
Returning my focus to the rest of the performance, I shall go back to the beginning. The performance starts with a rather innocent and endearing monologue written by Stoian and performed by eleven-year-old "Emelia" over a piano instrumental. This is a nice overture that introduces us smoothly into the dramatic text and reminds us of the younger generation in the lives of whom emojis are most prevalent. It also reminds us that this is an "intergenerational" performance, as detailed in the description…which is strange to me, because it clearly is not –– regardless of the inclusion of a singular eleven-year-old actress. Whilst this is a strong beginning in theory, the execution is rather poor, I am afraid. I would recommend when working with young actors with performances like these that lines be remembered not verbatim but through chunks, concepts. This is to avoid a sense of roboticism or lack of naturalism in speech, as is found in this particular recording. It would involve, for example, giving a list of bullet points to the young actor that remind them of the ideas they are trying to get across –– that using an emoji at a funeral would be "awkward", for instance, as was one of the items Emelia lists –– so that they may convey the idea in their own manner. The young actor would use their own language and timing to express the idea in question, relying a lot less heavily and systematically on the literal text, and coming across as genuine, natural, unrehearsed.
This naturalism is vital to the beginning, and, as it stands, we are already distanced from the very start by the lack of fluidity in Emelia's speech. Unfortunately, as well, this sets us up for the lack of naturalism where naturalism is needed in the rest of the texts.
A huge issue across all of the texts and with all performers is the sheer lack of adequate comedic timing. I shall exemplify plainly by referring to the text, 'TEFL (Teaching Emoji as a Foreign Language)' by Phoebe McIntosh. Halfway into this text, one of two teachers enters, and upon his entrance, he delivers a joke to the audience: "I would offer you a refund, but…it's a free lesson.” At this very moment, Ingrid Marsh, playing Jeanette, holds up her poo emoji flashcard –– another joke. In theatre, two different jokes delivered simultaneously make none. An audience needs time to laugh, and this comedic timing, or lack thereof, was extremely poor here.
A similar issue, the argument that ensues between Jeanette and Zel shortly after this moment is far too frantic and seems to come out of nowhere with no real stimulus. Zel claims that Jeanette's use of the poo emoji is racist, and then we have a further confrontation when Zel exclaims that their pronouns are 'they' and 'them'. In this moment, delivery is, again, poor, particularly in regard to naturalism and intonation, and timing is ill-managed. Although, the issue remains rather in the lack of coherent progression in the writing itself, I would add.
However, I must say that the cast deal with ensemble interactions rather well. Though I personally found EEKORP scenes rather irritating and ineffective, the speed and accuracy with which the cast 'bounced off' of one another were above adequate. I would just recommend better diction when it comes to the speedy commercial stock phrases at the end of these specific scenes.
Ironically, though, I think energy needs to be reined in quite a bit in places, and I think this is the main reason I disfavour EEKORP scenes. There is simply too much going on too early, and the texts need to be better paced out. We need time to digest what we have just seen. ‘Monkey’ scenes are good for this, but they are simply too irrelevant, as mentioned above, endearing and well-performed though they are. I would recommend, for instance, placing 'In an Emoticon Nation' by Sean Wai Keung further on into the collection and 'Happy or Sad?' by Alastair Gibbons closer to the beginning.
Moving on to audience interaction and participation. What is good about this performance is that audience interaction is constant. I see time and time again in performances actors interact with audience members right at the end or the beginning and never again, or –– the worst –– interrupting a performance to do so with such little effect or reasoning. This performance, however, manages to maintain its open and direct relationship with its audience, which is great for comedy and great for the venue that this performance took place in: a pub theatre, the Hen & Chickens Theatre. However, I am still not too convinced that these interactions were necessary or progressed the performance in any significant way. It felt as though audience interaction for the sake of audience interaction, and this is not so efficacious.
There is an odd fixation on gender politics throughout this performance, and this culminates in 'Lobster Emoji' by James Ireland. The collection remains unnecessarily politicised in places by this fixation, and 'Lobster Emoji' seems to come out of nowhere with its overly blunt and direct narrative. There is no issue with politicising content, of course, but the manner in which the politics here are presented is peculiar. 'Lobster Emoji' highlights a very important issue of representation, marginalisation and prioritisation of identities and their expression, and, in theory, is a very poignant text. It is, to some degree, also handled with a sense of comedy, with the lobster costume, symbolic of an assumption of the lobster as a symbol of the trans identity. However, the writing is simply too literal. It seems more like an unencumbered, blatant rant, where all other texts have been incredibly fictionalised and unrealistic –– from actors pretending to be monkeys to the emojis brought to life in 'Emoji Gameshow' by Jalice Corral, which, I should note here, is a very poor and lacklustre text that I would certainly recommend be removed from the collection with urgency. So, this ends up being a very feeble speech, important though it may be, devoid of creativity and artistic intellect.
Overall, I think writing was simply rather weak, salvaged by the energised cast. However, whilst performers certainly possessed great vitality, the manner in which this was channelled was rather unrefined, and their comedic timing and naturalism need a lot of work. The dramatic texts in this collection fall short of the theme that supposedly unites them, and audience interaction, though consistent and well-organised, is simply needless and distracting from the material at hand. Enjoyable to watch though this performance is, my personal and critical responses are very different, hence my rating below.