Everything about Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels is sleek and stylish apart from its ungainly title. Conceived for the stage but repurposed for online viewing, it resembles a Netflix series that knows just how to lure us in.
It’s divided into 28 bite-size chunks of drama that were streamed in nightly episodes on the Finborough theatre’s YouTube channel earlier this year but can be watched in great big gulps now that the whole thing is online. Each part is seven to eight minutes long and while this might have felt too short and stuttering to build dramatic momentum, it is instantly moreish.
Athena Stevens’ story is sparked by the actions of a middle-aged man who is never seen. Instead, we are taken into the inner worlds of two women, similarly unnamed, who he manipulates in different ways. One is his girlfriend (Evelyn Lockley), two decades younger than him and insecure, which he reminds her of repeatedly. The other is his elegant, independent best friend (Stevens), with whom he shares a peculiar intimacy. So much so that when his girlfriend sends him a topless selfie he shares it with her, braggingly.
The ripple effect of that initial transgression comes with a set of ethical dilemmas around sexual consent, abuse and female complicity that change in shade and significance with every episode.
The women begin as frenemies, competing for primacy in his life, but things shift as the best friend begins to feel guilty about standing by in silence as the girlfriend is controlled and demeaned. “This can’t be right,” she says but excuses him, and herself, time and again (“It’s not my business”), then suffers the consequences for speaking up.
Even though the man remains absent, this feels like a drama that revolves fully around him, with both women obsessing over his every word and action. But it offers insights and critiques of how compelling, and dangerous, such men can be, and how women get hooked in. Emotional abuse is explored as well as jealousy, power and the cost of female silence.
Director Lily McLeish employs an impressive range of televisual tricks to heighten the psychological drama: the characters are filmed from above and behind, sometimes we just see their feet, other times they lie languidly on a sofa or bed, and it is as if, through the language of film, they are laying themselves bare and emotionally exposed.
Constructed as a dual monologue, it often sounds as if the women are in dialogue with each other and both actors are equally captivating. The girlfriend – self-berating, obsessional and then enraged – is more convincing and rounded than the friend, whose feelings towards this cruel, shallow and immature man become puzzling, but they are both magnetic to watch and the gap between their monologues creates its own suspense.
Anna Reid’s design is heavily stylised, from the women’s striking dresses, sometimes mirroring each other, to the slick interior decor, and Anthony Doran’s stunning lighting plays with mirrors, reflections and shadows. The result is a drama that is beautiful across all its surfaces and riven by toxicity and turbulence beneath. Julian Starr’s score is hypnotic and creates dreaminess, but also unease, so that we anticipate an outbreak of violence that never comes.
The production is made by the creative team behind Scrounger, which put Stevens’ athetoid cerebral palsy at its centre. In the introduction of that play, Stevens spoke of the pressure she felt put under to write stories dramatising her experience of disability. Here, it is not mentioned once. Both Stevens and her play are a triumph.
• Available online until 31 March.