This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 18 February 2016.
Vlogging is a tricky thing to put on stage, and no play illustrates this better than Binding. A coming of age story about a non-binary teenager figuring themselves out with the aid of a laptop, it oscillates between being painfully truthful and cloyingly cringe-worthy. When it sticks to being a play it’s moving and compelling, but it feels more often like a rambling and incoherent vlog, whose digressions only distract from the powerful human drama at its core.
The main character is Archie, a non-binary seventeen year old struggling with their parents’ rejection of their identity, who copes by sharing their thoughts with the internet. This is the kind of character who lives or dies on the strength of the actor’s performance, and Livi Dunlop absolutely shines. By turns nervous, confrontational, awkward, and proud, they make the play’s constant shifts in tone feel completely natural. The first scene involves Archie putting on a binder with their back to the audience, and Dunlop plays it with an awkward physicality, highlighting the nature of the process as a real thing experienced by a real person, with all the fumbling awkwardness that entails. It’s a brilliant performance, and Dunlop is just as convincing delivering an angry and heartfelt address to camera as they are dancing to the Scissor Sisters.
The rest of the cast are solid as well. Laura O’Driscoll is horribly prejudiced and yet relatably human as Archie’s mother, and old hand Will Spence is good as Archie’s father. Both have strong comic timing, and come into their own in the play’s climactic scene. Zoe Helding has a strong delivery, but her role is too small to get much of a sense of her performance.
Which brings us to the play’s main problems. In presenting itself as a series of vlogs the play calls attention to its structure, which it sadly fumbles. There’s no clear narrative through-line; the action flits between scenes in Archie’s bedroom on one side of the stage and the dinner table on the other, but the two never sit comfortably, and the ending is as unsatisfying as it is amateurish. After a confrontation with their parents, Archie’s all-important laptop is taken away. The play then ends with a character we’ve never seen before, who walks on stage, spends three minutes telling us things we already know, and then assures us that Archie is fine. It’s a baffling and needlessly circuitous denouement, demonstrating a writer as unsure of themselves as the central character.
Binding‘s main problem is trying to do too much in too little time, and it sacrifices a coherent structure in doing so. But for all its flaws, it is worth watching; the acting really is top-notch, and the production has a sense of raw honesty which marks it out amongst a sea of smugly artificial student productions. Binding is a moving mess, and the Oxford theatre scene would undoubtedly be poorer for its absence.