If you haven't encountered the minor social media skirmish that accompanied the opening of this show (and good on you), here's a topline summary. ‘That Is Not Who I Am’ was publicised as being written by a first-time playwright apparently called ‘Dave Davidson’. But people rightly suspected that it was actually authored by a big-name writer. Someone worked out who it was. The secret messily dribbled out. And people got pissed off (either because they felt the Royal Court had tricked them, or because they felt it was in poor taste to pretend to platform a newbie playwright while actually staging the work of a bankable name). Is this play good enough to overshadow all the drama? Kinda.
With the caveat that what follows is full of spoilers: the author of the play presented is actually Olivier Award-winning playwright Lucy Kirkwood, who uses a wilfully tricksy framing to tell the apparently ‘true’ story of an activist couple who try to bring down the establishment. Kirkwood appears as a character – played by Priyanga Burford – who serves as a narrator/investigator into the mystery of the couple’s deaths, illicitly reconstructing their final days in defiance of a government ban on talking about the case.
It starts oh-so-gradually. Noah (Jake Davies) and Celeste (Siena Kelly) meet on a blind date modelled on The Guardian's long-running series. In between begging Noah to say her table manners are excellent (after all, her mum will be reading), Celeste lets slip her theories on chemtrails – that is to say, the conspiracy theory that governments are using aircraft to spray the air with chemicals, for nefarious purposes. Noah isn't sure, but he does believe that the World Trade Centre was rigged to collapse in on itself under impact from a plane. Kirkwood's writing is ingenious and subtle, showing how this couple gradually urge each other deeper into anti-establishment fervour, like they're tiptoeing cautiously into a freezing sea.
Davies and Kelly have a winning chemistry, their physical passion for each other glueing them together even as their lives come unstuck during the isolation of Covid. Still, it's not quite enough to make this paranoid pair entertaining company for this play's one-hour 45-minute running time. This play is billed as a thriller, but the fact that we know how their anti-surveillance, anti-government mission is going to end means it often feels ponderous rather than tense. And whereas Lucy Prebble's brilliant 2019 play 'A Very Expensive Poison' managed to mingle larky metatheatrical form with serious political themes, here, the tone feels subtly off: simultaneously not quite dark enough to thrill, and not quite silly enough to be laugh-out-loud funny.
What does make Kirkwood's play exciting is its unsettling, nihilistic anti-establishment message. It shows how inescapable tech surveillance has become, and how government agents embed themselves deep into any movement that threatens the status quo (as the real-life 'spy cops' scandal has shown). Does it feel dangerous enough to be something that would plausibly be censored by the government? No. But it's an intriguing experiment that shows the all-too-real obstacles to making radical change.