‘I Love You, Bro’ is chilling.
More than fifteen years since its original production at the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2007, THAT production company brings a new production of Adam J A Cass’ play I Love You, Bro.
Cass’play is based on the true story of a 14-year-old Manchester schoolboy called and his bizarre, dangerous, yet captivating web of lies online. Johnny is a lonely teenager with a broken home life filled with violence and fear. To escape his lack of friends and frightening realities outside of his bedroom, Johnny turns to his online world for connection, entertainment and excitement he can control. What begins as an evident flex of online bravado where chat room friends form cliques and share stories quickly turns to a foreboding danger. When Johnny meets ‘MarkyMark’ online, his username’ Alba J’ unintentionally tricks the new friend into mistaking Johnny for a female. With Johnny’s added realisation that he knows Mark from his real-world offline, his vivid imagination runs wild with cheeky manipulation as the fast friendship is formed and accelerated flirtation begins.
Long before the terms’ catfish’ and ‘trolls’ existed, Johnny’s choice to embrace his false identity injects the production with tension and foreboding. While a 2023 audience experiencing this work may like to hope they’d be immune to Johnny’s charms – the unbelievable, stereotypical female character Johnny becomes dangles the concerns for gullible teens online in the faces of the adult audience. From a few faceless friends in an online chat room to assuming not just one fake identity but eventually more than half a dozen by the climax, Johhny finds solace in his web conspiracies, and a creative outlet through his many alter egos. Beneath his online deception, Johnny longs to escape from his dangerous home life with his abusive stepfather, downtrodden mother, and bleak existence with no real-life friends before his life-changing scheming and manipulation began.
The production splits between isolated narration from Johnny’s bedroom to moments of interaction and interruption with his family that threaten to not only interrupt his fantasy world online and potentially expose his deceitful wrongdoings but also pose a physical danger for Johnny, depending on his stepfather’s mood. As a result, tensions mount inside Johnny’s online world and physically in the bedroom space as he stares helplessly at his door – hoping the sounds of his typing won’t summon the dangers he initially hid in his bedroom to escape. What’s more, as time passes, Johnny’s obsession with the thrill and power of manipulating Mark results in sleepless nights and wild mood swings – A situation many helpless parents are confronted with as teenagers become increasingly immersed in and reliant on technology for socialisation.
Considering the work’s past, present and future relevance to teenagers and families worldwide, Director Timothy Wynn encapsulates the immensity and complexity of the narrative. The story is presented in a stripped-bare bedroom filled with Chris Patrick Hansenstark’s Sci-Fi-esque sound design, lined with Nathanial Knight’s eery lighting and multi-dimensional audio-visual elements. Production designer Peter Keavy’s creates a cold and claustrophobic depiction of Johnny’s bedroom that acts as a sterile foundation for the complex story unfolding. Like a subconscious overlay of undeniable guilt and fear in Johnny’s mind, Knight’s red and blue lighting looms in Johnny’s bedroom while his layered projections allude to the depth of Johnny’s online world.
Wynn’s control of Johnny’s many characters and lies extends into the production’s use of the space. With ever-changing positioning, physicality, movement and digital conversations, Wynn’s choices in staging complement the creativity of Johnny’s mind. Meanwhile, Nic Davidson performs this tumultuous story with charm, control and a cheeky eagerness, reminding us of Johnny’s pride in his work yet eagerness to gain connection and attention. Davidson skillfully pairs humour, youthful energy and disturbing excitement with tender moments of sincere regret, guilt and fear of the consequences. Additionally, with the help of dialect coach Michael Mandalios, the actor’s strong Manchester accent reminds us that this story is true and reinforces the global scale of the dangers of social media.
From one shocking lie, adorned identity or unbelievable turn of events to the next, the production’s pace, energy and unnerving intimacy keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. THAT production company combines simplistic yet precise design, controlled performance and unsettling, surprising, and at times, darkly funny storytelling to present an enthralling production from start to finish.
I Love You, Bro performed until Saturday 25 March 2023 at Fire Station 101, 101 Limestone Street, Ipswich. For more information visit their website.