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How real is virtual reality? That is the disturbing question asked by Jennifer Haley’s taut, unsettling exploration of online paedophilia

The Nether

The Nether

The Nether is not a nice place to be. While In-world isn’t much better with its flesh-and-blood humans and consequences and morality, the Nether isn’t the digital nirvana its created to be.

It looks great (in a Matrix way). Thanks to Es Devlin’s (real) multi-media set and the (fictional) coding prowess of imagineer Sims (Stanley Townsend) who has created a bucolic Victorian surroundings with trees and gramophones and cravats in which to dwell and pursue his ghastly perversions.

For virtual reality, for the likes of paedophile Sims and his fellow-travelling avatars, has become a place where they can pursue their sick fantasies with impunity.

Sick? Is the repeated deflowering and murdering of a pixel pixie a sin or a useful, harmless outlet which keeps the predators off the real streets and corralled in their judgement-free haven.

Morris (Amanda Hale) thinks not. She’s an investigator for The Nether who has the right to rescind log-ins and leave the sick and lonely stranded in the real world.

As quizzes the elusive Sims, she outlines how morality bleeds from the digital realm to the real world with proper consequences.

Doyle (David Calder) has had enough of the latter. He wants to throw in his lot with the charismatic Sims, discarding his body for that of his avatar.

This is the dizzying world of Jennifer Haley’s tight, gripping play, an exploration of the obligations of second lifers.

Despite being visually sumptuous and stunning, it is no comfortable ride. There is a real girl (played by four child actresses in turns) who is the object of lust for Sims and Woodnut (Ivanno Jeremiah) a newcomer to the realm.

She has to tease the men, take their pawings, partially disrobe. What harm, I wondered, could come to an impressionable young girl playing such a part night after night.

Plenty of meaty twists and turns are thrown into this intelligent 80min work, where machine gunned questions of identity are riveting and dizzying. But I can’t help thinking there’s something off-colour here.

Until April 25, 7.30pm (mats), £10-£52.50,

The Nether | Duke Of York’s theatre WC2 | ★★★✩✩