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User Not Found review at Jeelie Piece Cafe, Edinburgh – ‘a beautifully human story’

Terry O'Donovan in User Not Found at Jeelie Piece Cafe, Edinburgh. Photo: Sid Scott Terry O'Donovan in User Not Found at Jeelie Piece Cafe, Edinburgh. Photo: Sid Scott
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It’s strange to think that the nature of grief has changed over the years. It seems like one of those permanent emotions, and one that’s always been the same as long as there have been people to love and lose.

But Chris Goode’s play, created by site-specific company Dante or Die, suggests that isn’t true. The piece takes us into a cafe where we’re given headphones and a smartphone. Goode then delicately explores the way technology has intruded on the grieving process.

As usual, his writing is very beautiful and very human. Performer Terry O’Donovan plays Terry, whose ex-partner Luka has died. As he tells his story, moving through the packed cafe, we hear his narration softly through the headphones. He’s been made executor of Luka’s digital legacy and has to decide what online remnants of Luka’s life to delete.

While Terry speaks, the phone on the table frequently blinks into life. There are text messages and social media apps, but also strange videos of swirling patterns to represent his more dreamlike, grief-stricken states.

It feels like a privilege to listen to and watch O’Donovan so intimately. Or maybe it feels like an intrusion. At one point, he’s just centimetres away and bursting helplessly into tears. The impulse is to look away and let him grieve in peace. But what’s weird is that O’Donovan is acting. His distress is as much a performance as the pics and statuses that make up our online lives. So why does it seem more real?

Similarly, there’s a moment when Terry describes holding the hand of a dying elderly woman, and a hand appears on the screen whose illuminated fingers he urges us to touch. But all that happens is the phone lights up. There’s no connection of skin to skin. Just cold, smeared glass. And it’s immensely frustrating.

But what it does is solidify the point Goode has been making all along. That, although we can scatter pieces of our personalities across social media and endless user accounts, actual existence is not reducible to binary code.

The show has us spend long periods staring down at the phones and adopting that crouched and solipsistic demeanour that’s so familiar. But then we’re encouraged to look up and re-enter the public space, this cafe, and acknowledge all the people around – to remember that this is a piece of theatre, and so it’s a temporary act of creating a community.

Those two modes clash in a really disorientating way, a constant interplay of private and public.

It wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without the slick video design by Preference Studio, and the seamless integration of narration with smartphone. But the best thing about it, and maybe it’s reassuring that this is the case, is O’Donovan’s performance. Even enhanced by technology and the electric charge of the intimate space, what has the most power, ultimately, is the human touch.

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Verdict
Set in a cafe, this is a beautifully human story about the impact of technology on grief 
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