IRL (La Boite Theatre Company) – theatre review

Social media is a language. Those you speak it will appreciate the authenticity of the early scenes of Lewis Treston’s IRL, which sees 17-year-old Alexei (Will Bartolo), back and forthing in messenger conversation with his closeted internet crush Thaddeus (Byron Lankester Howells), complete with the awkwardness and overthinking insecurity the manifests itself in any such invested relationship, regardless of one’s age. For those, however, who are unfamiliar with the adopted slang, abbreviations and even emoji expressions of younger generations, the La Boite production provides insight into the constantly evolving online world and its influence on interpersonal communication, self-expression and perceptions of ourselves and others.

Images: Morgan Roberts

In IRL the online conversation played out verbally between Alexei and Thaddeus is also a device that allows for provision of information to the audience about our protagonist’s family, coming-out story and his love of the fantasy world of Cosplay. Even though his role-play passion is apparently at odds with film-buff Thaddeus’s more grounded world view, after many months of online interaction, the pair decides to meet IRL (In Real Life) at Brisbane’s 2018 Supernova comic con and gaming event, in what will be Alexei’s first ever date. Luckily, Alexei has a spare ticket from the freebie passes he has received from his high-school best friend Taylor (Rachel Nutchey), who after their performance together on stage in As You Like It at the Brisbane Eisteddfod, was scouted by a talent agent to super-famous stardom in LA.

Things get real in a fantasy world with magical realism making for some memorable visual imagery as we are dashed through Alexei and Thaddeus’ attempted meet-up antics, complete with slapstick and mistaken identities, in true Shakespearean style. Ironically, what slows things down is the manic appearances and frenetic anti-capitalist artistic tempter-tantrums of Taylor, who is a panel participant at the convention due to her X-Men spin-off project.

Wil Hughes’ sound design and Ben Hughes’ lighting design work together to effectively take us from the pastel tenderness the fantasy world of Alexei’s stories to the spectacle of the Cosplay convention, which includes some fabulous costumes and an impressive backdrop reveal (set and costume designer Anthony Spinaze). It is a world full of colour, energy and pulsing music, for as is noted in advice to Alexei, young love is always a farce.

Bartolo gives a performance that is full of light and shade, endearing the audience to the character of Alexei, through his vulnerability, hope and humour alike. Within the story’s hyper-real world, kooky characters are often elevated to over-the-top one-note, shouty realisations, which makes his moments on stage a welcome respite from the mayhem. Indeed, it leads to wonder whether Alexei’s story alone could have been enough to drive the action and emotional engagement of the audience without needing to layer things with bigger-picture delve into issues of a world dominated by capitalist entertainment corporations.

IRL is a fast-paced, original work, full of youthful energy in its exploration of the complicated fine line between playing and lying, and ponder of if pretend is sometimes more real than reality. Its focus on the experience of a queer teenager in quest to find love, acceptance and community is, at its core, honest and real, and its joyous madcap vibrancy gives it particular value in entice of younger audience members to the theatre.

IRL plays La Boite’s, Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane until 25 November 2023

Meredith Walker
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane

Other reviews you might enjoy: