With Cotton, playwright Alex Benjamin offers a glimpse into an intriguing world: the domain of e-sports, where highly-trained teams of fast-fingered video gamers compete for life-changing prizes. We follow a three-person team – two men and one woman – as their hopes of glory are brutally dashed, and they're forced to emerge from a virtual world into a deeply disappointing real one.
The Peaceful Defeat is a self-described "young company", and this is a young person's play. The trio of gamers would all be at uni, if they weren't so busy honing their e-sport skills; their sweetest childhood memories feature Mario Kart, and one of them has a recurring nightmare about dropping his mobile phone. So did Cotton help me, a man with greying hair, understand their millennial concerns? Kind-of, but not really.
There are a few gut-wrenching moments, most notably when a family crisis is live-streamed on Twitch – the troubled but self-absorbed son offering scathing commentary on his father's distress. There's an interesting idea about an app to foster real-world friendship, and a witty take-down of the wearisome mantra that we all ought to spend more time outside. The direction is strong too, particularly in the scenes where they're playing League of Legends, bringing an impressive and unexpected physicality to a purely virtual world.
But when you scratch away the surface and ask yourself what really happens, you find something familiar and just a little tired. Three young people share a house. Their money dries up, they decide to get jobs, and they discover that job-hunting isn't much fun. One of them takes drugs and has deep thoughts about the universe; all of them have varying degrees of existential crisis. The backdrop might have changed, but the story could be straight out of my own college years – or my parents', come to that.
What's more, everyone involved is dislikeable. The ungrateful brat who humiliates his father is dislikeable. The unsympathetic woman, who cares only about winning, is dislikeable. The posh one who insists on staying positive is dislikeable. Even Dad, with his ineffectual concern and Tony Blair hand gestures, is a bit dislikeable too.
They do pull it back later on, as the characters' motivations and secret flaws are gradually revealed, but for me the damage was already done. I wanted to get on board with Cotton – genuinely wanted to care – but in the end, I found I simply couldn't.
Overall this feels like a missed opportunity to explore something genuinely new, or alternatively to ram home the point that some things never change. But there's promise here, the buzz of potential yet to be fulfilled. I'd be happy to come back for another round of Cotton 2.0.