Is The WiFi
Good In Hell?
Written & Performed By Lyndon Chapman
Directed By Will Armstrong
5 - 8 Jul 2023
July 7th, 2023
Images © Charles Flint
Updated 9th July, 2023
I have a favourite song of Bette Midler’s called “Shiver Me Timbers.” It's the version on one of Bette’s live albums where she offers a short introduction to the song with some jokes about the sea and what the sea means to her. There is something about the sea that is truly special and walking into the theatre the subtle sounds of waves, seagulls, and those noises that can only come from the seaside evoke deep feelings. Places like Margate were important beacons for Victorians, drawn to the sea due to their perceived magical health benefits and a natural rest from their city lives. The sea can engulf you and makes you feel safe but equally restless; it is calming in a way, aided by its transient nature and the freedom that a port can offer.
Dev is your typically precautious preteen, who seems his age when he talks but, in reality, comes across a lot older and wiser from the early life experiences he’s had. Dev's a 12-year-old who can make you laugh, and spends a lot of his tie trying to make people laugh, and yet the only person who really knows him is his bestie Ang, his friend for life. Like a lot of seaside towns Margate got sidelined from the 1970s on, with the town, its history, culture, and people falling by the wayside. For Dev, growing up in a “waste land” has clearly had an impact on his young life and has played a huge role in his identity. As he gives tours to London day trippers of Margate, the ping of rejection, both in him and his towns, can be felt, the only solace it seems is the sacred shack that he shares with Ang, this is their “safe space,” that is unfortunately surrounded by so much dilapidation and decay. One thing is certain though is Dev's determination to get to London and meet up with Ang to “ride the London Eye every day, even in [his] lunch break.” This might be an idealised version of London, but there is something special about the way be lights up when he talks about it.
When we meet Dev for the first time you're instantly pulled into his world. You feel neither pity nor sorrow for him, but it is hard not to feel protective of him. As much as he shares his feelings, he holds back a lot, never letting us in on who he really is or the pain he clearly suppressing. He glosses over High School years, his A-levels, going to college to get a BTEC, and getting into university via Clearing to do a degree he’s unclear about, all along using humour to deflect. And yet by getting into university he does share his incredibly perseverant attitude—that he never gives up.
University was a chance to really discover who he is and what he wants people to see when they see you, but Dev isn’t quite able to do that; his guard is never down. But on meeting Luke, his University roommate, a more positive change begins to take place. Dev’s first introduction with Luke might have gone smoother, but it was their second meeting that cemented the friendship that Dev had so longed for. Reaching out to shake Luke’s hand the lights goes red. You can feel Dev’s heart beating as, for the first time, he’s holding a man's hand “that’s not his father’s.” He’s looking down—not at Luke’s face, but their clasped hands—this moment forges an intimacy that is unexpected but needed.
"Every name, place, and experience that Dev goes through seems authentic; even the encounter with a bathroom attendant in a club got a deep laugh from the audience because it seemed like something Dev would do."
On Dev's part, though the feelings are platonic for Luke, the significance of their friendship, of being there for one another during some of their most challenging times, isn’t lost; the "duo from Flat 9" became inseparable, and losing this could be heartbreaking, so Dev doesn't try to do anything to ruin that. And when Dev lays frozen as Luke, "tipsy Luke", comes into his room, climbs on top of him, and gazes into his eyes for 10 seconds, an eternity, our hearts feel the wave of confusion, pain, sadness, and emotion that Dev is feeling right then. On reflection, I am wondering if there was some other motive behind Luke’s friendship with Dev. Did Luke think that by befriending a quiet, somewhat impulsive, and emotionally raw gay guy, it might allow him to find his own courage to experiment? Gay and straight male friendships are perhaps the most difficult to maintain because so much pressure is put on the gay friend to try to erase any physical or emotional feelings for their straight friend. That old stereotype of a straight guy thinking that all gay men want them is as equal as the stereotype that Dev has about people from Wales.
Armstrong, Chapman, and Pace create a scene that is beautifully cinematic. They utilise every possible tool in their arsenal to create a moment that is real and as powerful as any scene you could make. One feels so much for Dev, for the wave of emotions he’s now facing, those emotions being fear, panic, and regret. Should he have touched Luke or reached out to kiss him? Did he miss his chance to connect with Luke in a more personal way? There is a freedom that the straight friend has to do this that the gay friend never has, which is realised later on. And as Dev’s friendship with Luke starts to change, this "thing" that seems to be stalking him reappears—perhaps as a warning or a manifestation of Dev’s vulnerability. Can it be protective?
Chapman’s writing is filled with nostalgia—MSN, NOW CDs, the iconic Sony Erickson and Kath Kitson—and yet when Dev goes to London, he doesn’t use Gayday or Fitlads, and he doesn’t appear to have explored the gay scene; instead, Dev uses Tinder to match with guys. Dev is still an alien to the gay scene; his date with Barney at GAY in Soho couldn't feel more uncomfortable for him, and Chapman conveys this well. There is a feeling of guilt, or perhaps shame, about who he is and the feelings he has, and on more than one occasion, Dev says he believes that he possibly deserves this. The date with Barney once again opens up this space in his sub-conscience where this dormant ‘thing’ shows itself to Dev, whether it's when Luke is on top of him or that first time he saw it at the supermarket, or now with Barney, this ‘thing’, this mysterious entity, lurks in the foreground, coming out at times when Dev seems most in need of support. When he sees it with the former, it feels as though it comes as a protective warning. He has had a lifetime's fight trying to understand what being gay means to him, and when we first meet, it’s clear he’s unsure about his sexuality or what it means to him and his life. At school, a young Dev is told by his friends that he's gay, which he accepts. And I am left wondering if an early, negative experience when he was 12, something that would trigger this scary protector, happened that firmly planted something deep inside him that causes the confusion, fear, and isolation he faces.
There are millions of Dev's in this world—people who seem forced between the cracks, forgotten, or just left behind—who try and try and try to forge their own path in life. People who never seem to catch a break even when they are doing everything they can to keep their heads above water. The people who are told that regeneration and gentrification will bring them prosperity and opportunities when, in reality, all they do is exclude the locals from the very places that had been neglected and abandoned for decades, only to now be fashionably usurped by outsiders fortunate enough to be able to afford a bargain and permanently price out the locals.
Growing up in Margate, being gay wasn't something to be proud of. Fear and negative attitudes about being gay followed Dev as he tried to navigate his feelings and emotions. Perhaps this is why London was such a pull for him—a freedom to be who he wants to be, who he thinks he is, in the one place he knows he can find that thing he's longing for. But even there, he's not able to discover himself; he's still left with the feeling of regret and sadness of Luke, and his return to a now more gay-friendly Margate only makes him feel even more betrayed.
Like most forgotten places, Margate eventually felt the death-nail of gentrification, which would change a lot, including Dev and Ang's shack, now a fancy tiki bar. The town is now known as a gay-friendly hotspot; long gone is the Waste Land label Margate was awarded by T. S. Elliot and later reaffirmed by The Guardian. As Dev stands outside their old shack, now excluded from his space, looking in on the "Londoners" enjoying their expensive cocktails, a change overcomes him.
There is a look in Dev's eyes that can’t hide his broken soul. It is in this scene that Chapman, Armstrong, and Sound Designer Pace create a moment that is utterly captivating. The hurt, heartbreak, confusion, and history that Chapman wholeheartedly conveys make Dev even more real. By the close of the play, in just 60 minutes, the audience has grown up with Dev, from boy to man. And we are there rooting for him so hard because he really is a "fucking prince".
There is something cinematic about this production, something almost indescribable, as the theatrical elements created by performance, text, direction, lighting, and sound are near perfection; nothing is left to chance, and what could have been a risky scene is pulled off exceptionally. Director Will Armstrong utilises to great effect a somewhat cinematic approach to unpack Dev's narrative, and he does so with a skill and sophistication that are rarely seen outside of one of the bigger West End theatres. One thinks of Ian Rickson's staging of Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, less cinematic but almost on the verge through the use of sound, music, and movement. Here Armstrong takes advantage of the blank space by creating a minimum set and props and connecting deeply to Chapman as a writer and performer. This cinematic feeling comes multiple times in the production, but most effectively when Dev explains his five default voices, and as Dev shows us 'his' voice, the fifth and final voice, everything changes in an instant, and one feels this change. A weight, the type of weight that is burdensome, overtakes the stage, and you feel the fear, confusion, and sadness of Dev. Exposed momentarily with his eyes darting about the stage, Dev's vulnerability is painfully realised, and once again that need to protect, comfort, and console kicks in.
Playwright and performer Lyndon Chapman’s debut play isn’t just genuine; it is brutally real. There is a beauty to his writing that is breathtaking, and there are few emerging playwrights that have the ability Chapman has shown with Is The WiFi Good in Hell? His writing flows from the absurd and silly to funny and honest, maintaining a genuine thread throughout that makes it impossible to take your eyes off him. Chapman delicately blends into Dev, which makes his monologue confessional. After the first few minutes, Chapman and Armstrong created a world in which they ensured the only person the audience sees on stage is Dev, and Dev really is all we see. And, much like renowned British playwright Philip Ridley, what Chapman's writing showcases is how important descriptive detail is. Every name, place, and experience that Dev encounters is authentic; even the encounter with 'bathroom Barry', the toilet attendant at a nightclub, got a big laugh from the audience because it seemed like something Dev would actually do. Creating that type of character—a character that connects so deeply with your audience—is a rare gift. Chapman is a writer who proves how vital it is to be an observer in your world, to listen, to really listen and understand the voices around you, and to have an emotional connection to the stories and people that may, one day, inspire you.
Is The WiFi Good In Hell? is an honest exploration of one man's need for connection and escape, the search for his identity, and his attempts to find himself and his place in a fast-changing world that seems to always want to pass him by.