Silk Road

This engaging one-man play by Alex Oates is a novel take on the descent into drug-dealing: our protagonist, Geordie lad Bruce Blakemore, begins buying cocaine through a shady website known as the Silk Road – which exists in what is known as the ‘Deep Web’ – and sells it on eBay through the help of his unwitting octogenarian Nan and her knitted tea cosies. When Silk Road is shut down (as it actually was in November 2013), Bruce becomes involved in Silk Road 2.0.

James Baxter gives several nuanced performances under Dominic Shaw’s direction, bringing alive the wide-eyed Bruce and his shuffling, lisping Nan alongside a group of fleshed-out and hilarious minor characters.

James Baxter gives several nuanced performances under Dominic Shaw’s direction, bringing alive the wide-eyed Bruce and his shuffling, lisping Nan alongside a group of fleshed-out and hilarious minor characters. We meet the gruff, softie bouncer Mason, who leads a double life performing in am-dram productions. His dangerous boss, the club-owner Mr Shaggy, constantly snuffles from the cocaine he deals.

As Bruce grows into a fully-fledged drug-supplier, we see his sun-dappled memories of his school sweetheart – who initially makes the audience’s heart skip a collective beat – sour into feelings of jealousy and inferiority as she trades him in for ‘Mr Oxbridge’ at her university. As he constantly reminds the audience, before trailing off, “I’m not…” We see how easy it is for him, plagued by an inferiority complex and stagnating in his hometown, to turn to the profitable business of drugs; how easy it is to become part of the Silk Road network; how easy it is to ignore the considerable and inexorable legal risks.

Baxter achieves sudden, dramatic shifts in tone and subject matter with the help of coloured lighting. Explanations of the Silk Road are lit by cold blue light. A party scene is held in a bright green glow. Occasionally Bruce interacts with the audience in a steady yellow light, giving helpful tips on hollowing out books (to store our drugs, obviously). These frequent changes of scene and tone sustain the brisk momentum of the play, while elucidating several strands of the story at once. It’s a smart device, employed by Oates, an alumnus of Old Vic New Voices’ 24 Hour plays and clearly a talented storyteller.

What is perhaps lacking in the play, though, is an examination of the Silk Road’s ethical code – like its members’ refusal to sell guns – and what the law’s role in it ought to be. Oates writes in the programme that he was ‘intrigued by libertarian ideals’ when writing the play, but there is little consideration of these ideals in Bruce’s opportunistic moneymaking and it’s a shame that these questions aren’t explored further.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating, bittersweet story. Through the vivid personal experience of Bruce Blakemore, the faceless Silk Road is humanised, enough to make us consider those questions for ourselves.

Reviews by Larry Bartleet

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The Blurb

‘Buying drugs on the internet is simple, anyone can do it’. Meet Bruce, 19, unemployed and living with his nan. When Bruce discovers how easy it is to buy narcotics on the internet, his life and his nan’s eBay account change forever. From Old Vic New Voices playwright Alex Oates, ‘achingly funny and devastatingly sad’ (AYoungerTheatre.com), comes a ground-breaking and pitch black view of the dark web and the threat it poses to a generation without identity in a world of shifting values.

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