A deliciously entertaining look at the ways we interact in the modern digital world and the new gods we worship online.

Emily Tomlins and Eryn Jean Norvill in Elbow Room's Niche. Photographer: Jodie Hutchinson.

What makes someone famous? Why do some YouTuber’s amass millions of followers from all over the world? Is there a scientific method to success? These are some of the questions explored in Elbow Room’s sensational new production Niche. This hilariously contemporary play uses the central character of a manufactured pop star to pick apart our online obsessions and the trends which drive our social media saturated society.

Jodee (Emily Tomlins) is a scientist who specialises in epidemiology (the study of diseases and the ways they spread). As the play opens she is preparing for a speech about her latest case, a simian that has contracted a rare disease, only to be interrupted by the constant buzzing of her phone. When she finally answers the call the narrative kicks into high gear. The management team for a major pop star called Niche (Eryn Jean Norvill) have a proposal for Jodee; come and work for them, using her scientific methods to make Niche as famous as possible – to help her go viral. As Jodee becomes immersed in Niche’s online world she begins to question her sanity and the lines between fantasy and reality blur. The scenes become more and more surreal, Niche begins to take over the narrative and Jodee seems to regress back to an almost primitive state, not too far removed from the monkeys she studies.

Niche has been created by the two actors, Tomlins and Norvill, under the banner of their company Elbow Room and this production is a stunning achievement. The script is funny, biting and intelligent. There are moments of danger and a creeping sense of darkness throughout as Tomlins and Norvill force the audience to question why we are so invested in online social interactions and the damaging consequences this can have on our real everyday lives. More than a simple critique on the manufactured world of pop music, Niche is a deliciously entertaining look at the ways we interact in the modern digital world and the new gods we worship online.

Tomlins and Norvill are both brilliant in their roles and Niche offers each actor many moments to demonstrate the range of their abilities. Tomlins imbues the character of Jodee with a sharp intelligence and a professionalism bordering on obsessive-compulsive; her constant use of hand sanitiser in the opening sequence speaks volumes. Her progressive emotional unravelling is fascinating to watch. As the title character Norvill commands the stage, especially during her fantastic musical numbers. She struts across the stage with the swagger of Lady Gaga and the blank stare of Evan Rachel Wood’s robot from HBO’s Westworld. Along with their central characters both women also play various roles in short video clips that are played periodically throughout the play. They are side-splittingly funny as a middle-class couple living in a gated community, a father and son team of American doomsday survivalists and a cringe-worthy European stage mother and her young starlet daughter. These skits are brilliantly produced and technically accomplished, as is this entire production.

Every single technical element in Niche, from the stunning audio visual design to Amelia Lever-Davidson’s bold neon lighting is world class. The set by Owen Phillips is all clean and modern lines, making Jodee’s apartment look like the inside of an Apple store, and Emily Collett’s costumes for Niche are spot on and would make Gaga’s wardrobe team envious. The sensational original songs co-written by Norvill and Dorney not only serve as ironic comments on modern pop music, they are serious bangers in their own right and wouldn’t be out of place on any commercial radio station. And the lyrics are appropriately vague, vacuous and ridiculous. What director Nic Holas and the entire creative team have managed to produce in this production is staggeringly impressive; this is one of the most technically accomplished plays this reviewer has ever seen on Melbourne stages, large or small.

With only a few performances left in the short season make sure you grab the chance to score a ticket to Niche. This production is bold, unique, comical, terrifying and also a bloody entertaining night at the theatre. Niche is a popstar you’ll never forget in a production that will shake you awake and leave you dancing in the street. Niche out.

4 ½ stars out of 5

Presented by Darebin Arts Speakeasy and Elbow Room
Co-creator/performer: Eryn Jean Norvill
Co-creator/performer: Emily Tomlins
Director: Nic Holas
Soundtrack by Eryn Jean Norvill, Marcel Dorney and Robin Waters
Lighting Designer: Amelia Lever-Davidson
Costume Designer: Emily Collett
Set Designer: Owen Phillips
Choreographer: Helen Duncan
Production Manager: Bindi Green
Producer: Samantha Butterworth

Northcote Town Hall
16 – 26 August

Reuben Liversidge

Monday 21 August, 2017

About the author

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.