Review: The Nether at Hope Street Theatre Liverpool

Photo: Andrew AB Photography

By Nigel Smith

JENNIFER Haley’s dystopian crime chiller is set in the near future, in which the internet has enabled the creation of a virtual reality world, The Nether. Among the realms that exist within it is The Hideaway – a space where paedophiles satisfy their desires in avatar form. The work is challenging for producing companies and audiences alike, and it requires detailed delivery to balance the narrative, which is complex and often disturbing.

Through a crime investigation by Detective Morris (Catherine Devine) we learn of The Hideaway’s creator, Sims (Lee Burnitt) and his relationship with the virtual children he interacts with. In his discussions with Morris, Sims raises some difficult questions about the morality of living out fantasies in this way. Is it a crime to abuse a child when you know that, in reality, that child is nothing more than the imagination of another adult? He argues that by satisfying his needs in The Hideaway he is able to avoid harming any real children.

However well Sims tries to convince himself with this argument, as the story unfolds, events take increasingly sinister turns, and the boundaries between physical and virtual realities begin to blur and break down with serious consequences. His favourite girl Iris, played by Kimberley Athawes, seems to be able to repeatedly regenerate after ending her existence whenever a relationship reaches a certain point. But who are Doyle (Andrew AB), and the mysterious Woodnut (Grant Ryan Lenton) and how are they involved in the affair?

Director Sarah Van Parys and Falling Doors Theatre have really gone to town here, and the production values are extraordinary when you consider the scale of the venue. Designer Christopher McCourt has used the space to great effect, with a set that reaches out into the audience thrust-style. The fractured reality is highlighted by video projections, and Ink Duangsri’s lighting keeps everything in sharp focus.

Lee Burnitt and Kimberley Athawes give powerful performances as Sims and Iris, and Andrew AB manages to string out the mystery of his character with disarming fragility. Here and there is a sense of actors searching for their dialogue, which occasionally leads to dropouts in the dramatic tension, but overall this production delivers extraordinarily well, leaving the audience with some deeply uncomfortable questions to ponder.

The Nether might well be a challenge, but it’s one that Falling Doors Theatre have risen to courageously with a sure fire aim on their target.