Aldridge Studio, The Lowry , Salford
May 13-14, 2022; 70min (also Unity Theatre, Liverpool, June 16; Octagon Bolton, June 18)
There are great nights of theatre and there are memorable nights of theatre. They don’t always go hand in hand. Then there are nights of theatre where audience members leave the auditorium feeling a sense of total privilege that they were present for something great, memorable and unbelievably special. The world premiere of Melissa Johns’ Snatched was one of those nights.
TV viewers may well recognise Johns from her roles in BBC drama Life, ITV's Grantchester or Coronation Street, but they will likely be less familiar with the events of 2018 that led to the creation of this autobiographical theatre, when explicit photos of Johns were released online after her iCloud was hacked.
Snatched tackles themes of body shaming, guilt, teen angst, body dysmorphia, disability, eating disorders and media ignorance. The result is a piece of work that is both intensely personal and utterly universal.
A soundtrack of Shania Twain, Natalie Imbruglia and Britney Spears plays as people take their seats. Firmly placing the show in the 90s/00s era of Johns’ youth.
Discarded clothes litter a stage divided into a few distinct areas: a TV set complete with studio lights, a musical performance space and a plinth adorned with a shiny award against a glittery projected backdrop.
The show opens with Johns accepting said award - the Most Influential Humanitarian Overachiever of the year - after beating Michelle Obama and Anne Widdecombe in the process. The acceptance speech is proof that Johns is a natural comedian. Huge sections of the show are genuinely laugh out loud funny. Sadly, the award-winning dream is rudely interrupted by a ringing phone and the devastating news from Johns’ agent of the photo leak.
What follows is essentially a set of monologues describing events of John’s life. These vignettes are based on verbatim conversations with director Lily Levin, who co-devised the piece. They are brought to life thanks to stunning on-stage music from Imogen Halsey, pitch-perfect projections and, most importantly, Johns’ sensational acting. She transforms believably from her youthful self to her mother and then into clueless daytime TV host Mia Sporgon with ease.
For audiences without the experience of living without a limb, Snatched is a tough but important watch about how society reacts to disability. From the, perhaps well-meaning, stereotyping – describing everyday achievements as heroic or brave – to the downright disgusting comments posted online about Johns’ leaked photos.
But this show is much more than a play about disability. Anyone who has ever wanted to hide away their uniqueness and fade into "normal" will take something from it. Anyone who has had their heart broken or felt shame about their body or sexuality will feel the same pain. Anyone who has felt that unique combination of both unconditional love and frustrated annoyance towards parents or siblings will be moved to tears as they watch Johns’ childhood family videos and hear the voices of her parents.
What is perhaps most impressive about Snatched is its quality of production. Anyone wanting to know how to ground a piece convincingly in a period need look no further. The Nokia text messaging visuals, a description of logging on to dial-up internet, the images of a mottled supermarket floor and the 90s tunes. All perfect.
Halsey’s music deserves special praise. She switches from playing Bach’s famous cello prelude to haunting keyboard versions of well-known pop classics, and is brilliant at both. The soundtrack is not just reminding us of the period – just as the audience is being asked to look at disability and difference in a new way, Snatched is also forcing us to look at these tracks differently. The Vengaboys will certainly not sound the same again and Wheatus’ Teenage Dirtbag has perhaps never been more appropriate.
It’s simply impossible to find fault with such an uplifting, hilarious and heartbreaking production. Devised theatre often grows and improves with age and touring, but as this production prepares to head around the country it is already unbelievably accomplished. It fully deserved the instant standing ovation on its first night. The first, surely, of many.