Review of Billy Hicks, ‘Connecting’, at the Chapel Playhouse, London

Billy Hicks, Connecting... Promotional Image

Growing up is hard. It gets harder still when the world of opportunity grows larger than we ever imagined possible. Billy Hicks describes this trajectory in amusing and refreshingly candid terms in his intimate one-man show.

‘Connecting…’ documents the experience of growing up in a new world of digital technology. From the teenager falling in love over MSN Messenger to the twenty-something anxiously checking his phone for alerts, we see how technology both counteracts and compounds the loneliness of youth.

The scene is set in the 1990s with a collage of mime, from Street Fighter to the Crystal Maze. Then, our journey begins with a nine-year old boy in his new bedroom. He’s an articulate, even eccentric child, and the detail of his poster arrangement is all-important. Among his proud display, he discovers the value of tape as a recording medium and begins an oral diary, which frames the set-pieces we are witnessing.

We skip to the early years of high school, where our protagonist is practising rap and imagining future dates for… a Happy Meal? (It’s clear the mental conversation doesn’t always reach that stage.) The trip inside the head of a young teenager can be funny as well as dark. Hicks sympathetically frames the sort of difficulty that made the arrival of the internet such a gamechanger for awkward youngsters.

By sixteen, our young hero is immersed in the world of online forums, where he fashions himself with greater confidence to make new connections. Here, the monologue gains greater profundity. Our adolescent is suddenly able to create for himself a new and different place in a larger and more exciting world – all from an unforeseen opportunity that hadn’t previously existed.

It’s certainly something worth contemplating. Only a few of us are of the age bracket where this particular paradigm shift struck so hard and so fast. It reminds us not only of the internet as a source for good, but also of the self-awareness that has been lost to a now-ubiquitous technology.

In this vein, the show continues. With age and maturity come occasional losses of composure. It’s left to a note from his younger self to get our protagonist back on steadier ground. Is the younger child the more balanced because he’s untainted by connective technologies? We’re left to ponder.

‘Connecting…’ is a painfully honest reflection of the culture of its time; not only by the stack of cultural references that shape its protagonist, but also the experiences – of troubled children moving schools and of social media and the need for validation. The result is isolation.

Teenage years in the early 2000s were an exercise in solipsism, whether our company was a games console or the vast connective potential of the internet. What changed was the ‘opportunity foregone’, which became much greater when these new opportunities fell within reach. Ignorance was bliss. Maybe. Now, FOMO is born and there’s no bliss left – just ‘Millennial burnout’.

What ‘Connecting…’ doesn’t explore is the consequences of dating apps or the emergence of the incel community, other adult points on the spectrum of connections borne by the age of technology. This is destined to be a story of personal fulfilment – not of outrage. Yet, there’s nothing to say that these couldn’t form part of a sequel or series.

The Chapel Playhouse, Grays Inn Road, London

Hicks is particularly compelling where his ebullient energy intensifies the moments of stillness. It’s a trait not dissimilar to David Tennant’s tenth Doctor (an institution of which Hicks is clearly fond). ‘Connecting…’ is a study of curiosity, which all good monologues are, and of enthusiasm. It champions the value and the joy of memory and nostalgia prior to a time-starved age when yesterday’s news is already forgotten news.

And lest we forget the value in the old, ‘Connecting…’ shows us how a piece of relatively arcane technology connects the old and the new over twenty years. Compare this to Facebook, which emerges deep into the show and has already lost its power of permanence before the end. Technology, we see, is transitory. Soon, we’ll have to find new ways of forging connections and making memories.

Above all, ‘Connecting…’ is an exercise in bravery. Despite opening the door to a whole new world, the internet for many became an extension of our private lives. There are stories, connections and mistakes I’ve made that I wouldn’t want to share. To lay a lot of this personal baggage on stage is courageous and empowering. There is something here that many in their twenties and thirties will be able to relate to.

This play about loneliness in the internet age will make a lot of teenagers, including the teenager in me, feel very much less alone.

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