Here's to you, Mrs Reynolds

Adventurous theatre delves into "Brown's Britain".

Hoodie with a heart, tart with same, and plucky granny: at first glance the character list of Mrs Reynolds and the Ruffian is pretty standard issue. That said, Gary Owen's new urban fable for the Watford Palace does have a rather winsome combination of grit and charm.

It's a homily on the hot potato of youth delinquency in "Brown's Britain", and in particular the strategy of restorative justice, where the offender is required to make amends in some way for the damage caused. In this instance, repairs must be made to the victim's garden, thus teeing up a proliferation of metaphors, stated and unstated, relating to gardening - bad seeds, not all roses in the garden - you get the picture.

That the play breaks out of cliché is down to some gutsy and funny writing, and a great central performance from Morgan Watkins as the eponymous ruffian. He's a familiar type: mis-matched trackies, wet-look hair gel, body too big for him. Watkins slopes and sidles round the stage, always on the oblique, avoiding eye contact. Vocally he does a nice line in the teenage whine that is deliberately unexpressive for fear of betraying weakness. He is gobby - quite literally so, as he hawks lustily into Mrs Reynolds's tea, and during their critical show-down, spits savagely in her face. Crucially Owen also gives him a shocking back-story. He is both repulsive and endearing, clever and naïve: in short, complicated. Watching him break down, a little boy lost, and try different laddish registers as he tries different "mates" on his mobile, is genuinely moving.

The blend of savage realism and comedy is a tricky alloy to get right, and I'm not entirely convinced that the cast always have it nailed. If anything they are slightly over-sparkly and twinkly for this grubby, muddied world (but not sparkly enough for a send-up of it).

Initially Trudie Goodwin (veteran star of The Bill) seems a little too trim and reedy, a little too young to play Mrs Reynolds. After all it would be a lot funnier to have someone genuinely ancient shouting "bollocks". But by the end of the show I was beginning to suspect that director Brigid Larmour was playing a longer and more patient game here, and quietly messing with ideas of what it means to be old. And all credit to Owen for writing in a role for women "in the middle way". Even the title seems to craftily lay down the gauntlet to expectation, with its coy, dated nomenclature.

Mrs Reynolds certainly has reserves of steel, and is an expert at the laconic put-down. It becomes apparent that she is as much of a player as Jay. She also has some delightfully dry schoolmarmish moments: in the little municipal garden, where only the graffiti blooms, she uses the spray-paint obscenities for a disquisition on the importance of spelling. The legend STACEY LYKS COCK is written by someone "trying to tell us something about Stacey". But we can't be exactly sure what it is. "And why not? Because of poor spelling."

Like the writing, the design of the play seems to flirt with, and then just sidestep the banal. The show opens with barbed wire and roses in opposing corners of the stage - so far, so obvious - but when the scene shifts to the outdoor space, a defaced wall emerges, which appears to be holding back a truly mountainous tide of rubbish, the crap of ages. It makes Mrs Reynolds's clean-up efforts look at once pointless and heroic. Colourful projections show the rampant graffiti blossoming before being dutifully whitewashed by Jay.

Owen charts a skilful course through the changing dynamics between old lady and young offender, and his play is an upbeat testament to the redemptive power of a spot of nurturing and a spot of gardening. But towards the end of the play he appears to tack on a whole other story: Mrs Reynolds is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and suddenly we are catapulted into another play's worth of inquiry about assisted suicide, which we are galloped through at unseemly pace. The plot not so much thickens as curdles. Incidentally, the sketchy background details relating to pram-face neighbour and love interest Mel, who has shagged her way through her self-esteem issues, also seems deserving of more attention; this narrative perhaps merits promotion from sub-plot.

But it seems ungrateful to bemoan such superabundance. This is quality new writing staged by Larmour and her team that might just put Watford on the map for something other than being on its edge.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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