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Review: Off the Record at New Theatre

Review by Bella Wellstead

A former-BBC news presenter, disgraced by the scandal of her own drunk-driving. The CEO of an aid organisation operating in Bangladesh. A series of sexual assault allegations, brought forward via an unreliable and easily discredited source. Written by Chris Arontsen, directed by Jess Davis, and assistant directed by Matthew van den Berg, Off the Record considers how systemic injustice interacts with accountability.

After crashing her car under the influence, news presenter Jenny loses her job, home, and credibility. She is forced to take a position on a current affairs program where she interviews Tony – CEO of Embrace International. She asks him about sexual assault allegations that have been made against him by female employees. Despite these allegations, Tony remains at the head of Embrace, moving freely between London and Dhaka. Wallowing in her own accountability and baulking at Tony’s lack of it, Jenny seeks to achieve justice for his victims. Off the Record rightly identifies sexual violence as an oft-discredited transgression, heavily influenced by patriarchal power structures that undermine the testimony of women.

Michela Noonan plays Jenny, beginning the play with a careless bravado that mellows as she settles into her own fragility. Her desire to expose Tony’s crimes transforms throughout the story – from a selfish impulse to reassert her journalistic prowess to a genuine, altruistic care for others.

Joe Clements’ Tony is the archetypal guilty CEO – well-dressed, calmly spoken, and blame-shifting. On air, he addresses the allegations against him with a careful diplomacy, skirting around Jenny’s questions. Off-air, Tony is presented as friendly and easy-going. His familiarity is disarming.

Gina Cohen is delightful in her performance as Jenny’s hospital roommate, chuckling with disconcerting glee as she hears about Jenny’s accident on television. Belinda Hoare’s performance as AA sponsor Nadia is grounded and calming, and Chad Traupmann’s brief appearance as a taxi driver has a jovial warmth.

Set design by David Marshall-Martin is sleek, minimalistic, and corporate – complete with tiles of office carpeting and a series of black, white, and red paintings suspended from the ceiling. The stage transforms effectively from a news office to a hospital to a lounge room with the movement of various set pieces. However, these transformations occur during blackouts that stretch out for long periods and leave the audience waiting for the next scene.

Sound design by Scott Gabutto and Matthew van den Berg is similarly jarring, incorporating various popular songs from the past forty years. These choices are transparent in their attempts to establish mood and therefore prevent audience immersion. A bass-heavy rock beat accompanies Jenny as she drinks heavily and drives recklessly. An upbeat, rolling melody plays as she chooses to uphold her newfound sobriety and seek the support of her sponsor. Songs begin and end suddenly, jolting loudly into the world of the play.

The set is backdropped by a white sheet that slopes up from the stage to the ceiling. Lighting designer Mehran Mortezaei utilises this screen beautifully, illuminating the stage in moody blues and desolate violets. They project pixelated recordings of fast-moving headlights to simulate car crash scenes. At various points throughout the play, actors’ silhouettes are thrown boldly against the background, creating brilliant, looming visuals.

I found myself thoroughly baffled by the characterisation of Janine – a whistle-blower working for Embrace International. She is canonically an anti-vaxxer, frightened of 5G, and fixated on various conspiracy theories. She is also the person who exposes others’ sexual assault allegations against Tony, imploring survivors to come forward and share their experiences. Suzann James plays the character as a jittery loner, lending credence to her vulnerability to conspiracy. However, this vulnerability positions her as suggestible, poorly educated, and easily outraged, thereby undermining the believability of the allegations she uncovers. Whilst this easily explains the reception of these allegations within the world of the play, it undercuts the very real ways that women are ignored and ridiculed when exposing sexual violence and patriarchal hierarchies. In our society, a woman need not be a conspiracy theorist nor a reckless drunk driver to be considered untrustworthy. She need simply be a woman.

Considering how the #MeToo movement has exposed patterns of sexual violence and amplified the voices of survivors, it is important that stories about these abuses of power continue to be told. However, for me, Arontsen’s interpretation rings hollow. In Off the Record, Arontsen attempts to transplant #MeToo discourses into the context of a Bangladeshi factory. However, he completely omits the perspectives of the factory workers who have been exploited by Tony. These women do not appear in the play, and they are not given voices nor individual identities. Even when Janine discusses their allegations with Jenny, she speaks of them as a monolith – a group of disadvantaged women coerced into sex at the risk of endangering their livelihood.

In addition, Tony is never brought to justice. It is clear that Arontsen has written the character’s seemingly unimpeachable power deliberately. It functions as an allegory for the overwhelming supremacy of patriarchy – and, consequently, sexual abuse – in the modern world. However, one is left wondering what Off the Record contributes to the #MeToo discourse – or at least, what it contributes to common understandings of sexual violence. I could even argue that this play directly undermines the central purpose and values of #MeToo – empowering survivors to share their experiences, providing space to find community, and preventing future sexual violence by exposing perpetrators. Off the Record denies its survivors their agency, presents its female characters as untrustworthy, and allows its villain to escape accountability with ease.

Image Supplied


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