Despite the captivating premise of thrusting audiences into the all-consuming, drug-fuelled rabbit hole of gaming, Cotton fails to offset any stereotypes surrounding professional gamers.
Playing at the Waterloo East Theatre as part of this year’s VAULT Festival, Cotton follows friends Glen (Will Pinhey), Kieran (Ben Mallett) and Tammy (Franci Donovan-Brady) – a professional gaming team. They rely on caffeine and adderall as they push their health in order to reach the upper echelons of success. After losing a tournament, the three part ways and attempt to lead ‘conventional’ lives. The story does not explore the themes it presents any further however, and comes across as a whistle-stop tour of preconceived notions many of us already harbour about gaming.
There’s a rousing moment where a cacophonous jazz track is infused with the frenzied button mashing of the team, as the friends desperately scramble for victory in a game. But in an instant, the momentum dissipates. This is due in part to the movements: choreographed but still lacking an economy of style. Moreover, our expectations of being submerged in a bustling jazz soundtrack to further bolster the story are dashed as tracks are used sparingly throughout the play. Jazz pieces punctuate transitions very occasionally and at times, their sudden use feels jarring.
Visually, Cotton benefits from being housed by the Waterloo East Theatre. Its intimate nature allows for a feeling of isolation to permeate throughout the piece, and the dynamics of being a passive audience mirrors the voyeuristic nature of Kieran’s viewers on his livestream. Benjamin’s stylistic choice of having individual components of gaming gear such as central processing units, keyboards and headsets strewn across the stage helps to conjure an image of sparsity.
Throughout the play, Alex Benjamin consistently uses dialogue to question reality. To varying degrees, his characters are all crippled in the shadow of a postmodern “situatedness”, that is, an existence where they are unable to connect with the real world. Glen points to this in his monologue about finally stepping out of his enclave of virtual reality to take a walk and experience the outdoors for once, only to still feel disconnected. Kieran also touches on this idea when he declares to his dad that “you live in reflections of reflections of reflections..” Every character in Cotton is given a monologue to express their alienation but we only ever capture a glimpse of their emotional landscapes. The imagery utilised in each monologue comes across as superficial, and the content doesn’t quite match the emotional intensity that the actors try to create. We are consequently left with a sense of deflation after each underpowered monologue.
Whilst Ben Mallett provides a standout performance as the twitchy Kieran, it is not enough to distract from relatively uninspired performances from the rest of the cast. Ben harnesses a frenetic energy that is simultaneously venomous and vulnerable. Despite this, the ensemble fails to bring vulnerability or depth to their stock characters. Additionally, lines are lost at times due to certain actors rushing through their lines (as well as a general lack of projection). George Fincher plays Alan, the worn out father of brothers Kieran and Glen, who is struggling to keep his family financially stable. As Alan also fails to relate to his sons, Fincher’s acting choices render it hard to garner sympathy for the patriarch.
Ultimately, from addiction to loneliness and betrayal, Cotton is a play that is cluttered with interesting ideas but fails to further develop them. The characters serve as little more than gaming archetypes – and the disjointed plot fails to anchor them.