Nothing says ‘theatre’ like a stage set solely consisting of a single, giant, fuck-off stuffed bunny, never at any point directly alluded to by the actor in the play.
I mean that with all sincerity: Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s ‘Harm’ is the first show I saw after lockdown three, and Rosanna Vize’s behemothic rabbit is a terrifically ballsy reminder of the levels of abstraction that theatre can get away with and other mediums can’t. A case in point: a version of ‘Harm’ was actually shown on the BBC in April. There was no giant rabbit there. Guess which one is better.
In essence ‘Harm’ is a monologue about a malcontent millennial (relatable) who turns stalker (less relatable). The magnetic Kelly Gough plays an unnamed 39-year-old estate agent. Bored and hermitlike, she comes into the orbit of Alice, a younger Instagram influencer looking to buy a house. ‘I want her’, Gough declares, with a pause so pregnant it’s practically having twins, before adding ‘to suffer something unfortunate’. She is less besotted with Alice herself than the attention her life gets: endless dopamine hits from putting up every aspect of her existence to be ‘liked’ by her followers.
The rabbit represents them both - an Instagrammable second presence on the stage to represent Alice, but also an allusion to Gough’s character, who is described as looking ‘like a stuffed rabbit’ (I could say some more on this but it would probably contain rabbit spoilers).
An uneasy, unequal semi-friendship gives way to Gough’s character becoming a big deal on an anonymous online gossip site by posting embarrassing details of Alice’s life. She turns into Alice’s mirror, an influencer of malice.
Sharply dressed and charismatic – certainly not the dowdy frump Alice seems to see her as – Gough has the air of some lithe ‘70s rock star, and makes for a witty host, flitting between accents and bounding around the rabbit as she shares her story. It’s a fantastic articulation of the ennui of being an underachieving millennial Londoner, vividly daubed with digressions on the bits of south east London we cling to - Nunhead, West Norwood, Brockley, Queen’s Road Peckham...
Eclair-Powell’s script is sharp, but my biggest problem with ‘Harm’ is that its protagonist’s mix of relatable depression and Jagger-ish pizzazz only goes so far in dressing up the fact she becomes a stalker, something Eclair-Powell’s text and Atri Banerjee’s production feels strangely forgiving of. It’s not that I’m saying you can’t do shows about stalkers unless they’re depicted as full-on bunny boilers (although here, the bunny boils you). But here Gough’s heroine’s worst excesses feel more like somewhere dramatic to take the story than a sensitive study in mental illness. It’s all worn a bit lightly, and easily redeemed.
But how great to be having these debates again, and credit to all involved with ‘Harm’ for being straight out of the traps with such a vivid, gutsy, theatrical show. Welcome back, the Bush, and baggsy the rabbit when you’re done.