Written by Elliot Hughes
Directed by Anoushka Bonwick
Performed by Steph Reynolds, Nisal Cole, & Elliot Hughes
Produced by Beccy Smith for Hidden Track Theatre
9th – 25th May
The theatre at Deptford Lounge is tucked away upstairs over a library, but it is a serious theatre space – large, versatile, and well-equipped. The audience and stage are contained within walls of black curtains, which make us feel like we are in our own little world. There is a large projector screen, which holds a message as the audience files in, thanking us for our presence and assuring that though this is interactive theatre, there is no pressure to take part. On each seat there is also a simple but elegant black card, reading in white letters NO, THANK YOU. We are to use it to opt out of any proffered interaction. For my companion, who is less seasoned in the ways of fringe theatre than I, this is very comforting, and allows me to convince her to sit in the front row with me. In front of us, the stage is empty, with no settings, backdrop (other than the projector), props (yet), or people. In the beginning, there was nothing.
The first signal that something is about to happen is when the projector’s looping welcome message disappears. In the sudden silence and darkness, three performers – two women and one man – begin telling a Creation myth. It’s one made up by Hidden Track for this show, and tells the story of a world in which resources spring into being from the Everything, allowing for all sorts of wonders, and all in this world, audience included, is separated into two halves by The Line (introduced on stage as a thick, heavy rope). Eventually, two nations spring up, each represented on stage by an actor as a “guardian spirit”, with the divide between them moderated by a supposedly neutral entity, the Lineswoman. Everything is cordial, with only slight underlying tension, until Points are introduced.
Points are the mechanic which encourages and rewards audience participation, and fosters competition between the two “nations”. Audience members can earn points by, as summarised by a character later in the story, “clapping, cheering, or yelling out random words” – or any other type of interaction. Basically, we have the power to name our guardian spirit, choose the national fauna, and build landmarks out of cardboard boxes – but it’s strictly a gap-fill kind of participation, with a tightly scripted plot which doesn’t allow for or rely on much improvisation. And that is not a criticism! It means that the show is always held firmly in grip, never spinning out of the performers’ control, and that momentum is kept up nicely. But there is just enough audience participation to keep us involved and entertained, and enough tongue-in-cheek self-awareness for it not to be twee.
Unfortunately, this self-awareness, momentum, and audience interaction fades somewhat at the end. After a lengthy and often absurd or surreal allegory, the plot is wrapped up with some narration that feels both prolonged and rushed, not to mention didactic. Without the veneer of humour, the philosophical and political messages begin to feel patronising, and about as subtle as a brick: jingoism is bad, so is discrimination, inequality, us vs them mentalities, building walls, etc. The only concept that really makes me prick up my ears is a line about how “the system isn’t failing, it’s doing exactly what it’s designed to do”, but this isn’t really explored except as a springboard for symbolically dismantling the system.
Other than this uneven pacing, though, the show is incredibly slick for interactive theatre, well managed, aesthetically pleasing, and just plain fun. Irene Jade is to be congratulated for an elegantly miminal design, director Anoushka Bonwick for a tightly wound and polished production, and actors Steph Reynolds and Elliot Hughes for keeping the audience well in hand and excelling in their portrayals of a wide range of characters, especially the comic ones. If you’re new to interactive theatre, this is an excellent starting point, and I would especially recommend it to families who want some kid-friendly fun which might provide an opportunity to discuss some meaty topics on the way home. Be willing to put up a hand to take part (the interactions are anything but strenuous, I promise) and to spend the rest of the night brushing chalk off your jeans legs. If any of this appeals to you at all, make sure you get in line now to buy tickets for Drawing The Line.