In 2011 a group of very young, mostly teenage people held multinational corporations and some of the world's most powerful security services to ransom. And they did it from their bedrooms. They were the hacktivist cream of the online anarchic Anonymous collective. In the cause of fighting censorship of the internet, or just having a laugh, they broke into such citadels of capitalism as Sony, Paypal and Fox; and they compromised security services as serious as the Serious Fraud Squad and as intelligent as the Central Intelligence Agency. Almost untraceable, they represented a threat to national and business interests probably not seen since the rise of communism, although their targets also included oppressive regimes in the Middle East.
Tim Price's play could easily tell this essential story. But it is a tale that wouldn't be whole unless it also captured the anarchic, no-holds-barred culture of the internet. It probably took me longer than it should have to realise that the bizarre costumes worn by some of the characters populating his play - among them a Star Wars stormtrooper, a furry cat and a Japanese schoolgirl - represent the online avatars that hide identities in chatrooms and forums. But once this penny drops, the procession of surreal and disturbing images that clutter the stage in Hamish Pirie's whirligig production begin to make sense.
It also helps that two of the most active of the hacktivists here - Jake (Kevin Guthrie) and Mustafa (Hamza Jeetooa) - are not anonymous. At least to us. We see the teenagers in their "offline" lives. Jake is agoraphobic and lives in Shetland, where his mother fails to get him to sample life outside his bedroom. Mustafa is a socially awkward London schoolboy whose closest relationship is with a piece of computer software that simulates conversation with a real person. They make your average geek look like the popular kid in school.
To her great credit, Chloe Lamford's design rejects the somewhat hackneyed use of video projection to simulate computer screens. In fact, this is a surprisingly organic set with trap doors through which characters pop up and pop out. And when the plot becomes something akin to that of a caper movie, with the teens disrupting the software used by the Tunisian government to track dissidents on social media, Mustafa's computer code is depicted with synchronised choreography.
It's a smart move by Pirie to show this brave new world with old fashioned theatre techniques. And for those for whom the internet is primarily a way of shopping at Marks & Spencer without leaving the house, the production illuminates the lawless, amoral culture that represents other aspects of the web. In that sense, the show grapples with something as intangible as a psychosis that leaves you scared and disorientated. Especially the end, which rooted me to my seat while I replayed the scene in my mind like an umpire considering an LBW decision before it made sense. But crucially the show reveals how our lives, institutions, values and laws are at the mercy of a group of talented but unruly teens - sometimes for good, at others, for ill.
They make the average geek look like the popular kid in school