REVIEW: SILK ROAD (VAULT Festival) ★★★★

Silk Road is a new one-man play which captures the sinister beauty of the anarchic dark web. Through an effective combination of visual metaphors and poetic monologues, our protagonist Bruce takes us on a white-knuckle tour around this brave new world.

Following the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, creator of the Silk Road and self-appointed “Dread Pirate” for money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identity documents, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics, the dark web has come under increased scrutiny.

The dark web an open, trustless space and although applications such as Silk Road are used for harmful criminal activity, I’m one of the purists who believes that, in the very beginning, its origins were created out of good intentions.

In Alex Oates’ play, the new world struggles to escape the shackles of the old. Drugs bought on the dark web with Bitcoin must still be smuggled in tea cosies and hollowed out books. Young men with big ideas are still victim to the same old problems: sucker punched by love and led astray by beguiling women.

Silk Road is also a classic coming-of-age story. Bruce is on a journey towards self-actualisation and Josh Barrow’s funny, sympathetic and highly physical performance drags us along for the ride. Pulled around the stage by the forces acting on his life, by the end of the piece he is an upright man in control of his own destiny. Dominic Shaw’s slick direction keeps things moving; it’s tightly paced with sharp transitions between locations, characters and points in time.

Oates’ writing and Barrow’s performance lend depth and subtlety to each of the story’s characters. Bruce’s hilarious Nan is a feat of comic character acting, and he clearly takes delight in revealing her own dark secrets as the plot thickens and Bruce’s playful fantasies develop into something far darker, dragged back into the mess and complexity of real life.

The only element of this show I didn’t like are the asides to the audience. Barrow comes down from the stage to sit and chat with an audience member on the front row. I found this a bit jarring; his chatty manner feels forced and it’s also unnecessary – we can get all the information we need from his engaging direct address.

This high-tech story is anchored by its relatable characters, sharp comedy and deft, accessible explanations of its subject matter, including Bitcoin and the dark web as well as Silk Road itself. It’s great writing from Alex Oates in an impressive production from Dominic Shaw, and Josh Barrow’s performance brings the exhilarating story to life.

Reviewed by Annabel Mellor


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