Thursday, 9 June 2016

Guest review: By The End Of Us, Southwark Playhouse

Due to a date with Helen McCrory, I wasn't able to make this show, but its premise was one that was sufficiently interesting to send a friend who is much more into video games than I am (my limit is pretty much Tetris...) So here is @merrychrissmyth's debut on There Ought To Be Clowns.

Video games and immersive theatre are something of a natural Venn diagram - manoeuvring around a world constructed entirely for your benefit. Block Stop’s latest production, By The End Of Us is a “Live Video Game: a video game performed by live actors, controlled by you”, with the action taking place simultaneously in The Little of the Southwark Playhouse and in what appear to be the Vaults of Waterloo Station. It’s an ambitious gambit, albeit not one that always pays off.

In the game, two protagonists are simultaneously playing at cross-purposes. The assassin, Mia Culper (say it out loud) is controlled by the Single Player, a sole audience member sequestered away from the auditorium. Sam, a security guard, is controlled by an electronic popular vote by the members of the audience. Mia must assassinate a target, Sam must prevent her from achieving her goal.

The game opens with a slickly-produced short film (or ‘cutscene’, if we’re really going for this) introducing Mia, Sam, and the target. The action then unfolds as Mia attempts to make her way to her target and Sam conspires to stop her by any means necessary.

The publicity material boasts that there are no pre-coded or pre-scripted events at work in By The End of Us, although this felt painfully evident during the performance I attended. Characters meant to be unaware of each others’ presence were stood two feet apart, pretending not to see each other. The seeming lack of rules resulted in some illogical outcomes - at one point a character bumped into a wall and lost 20% of her health bar (yes there are health bars). Unfortunate technology issues meant the live feed connecting us to the action dropped out frequently.

Any game or piece of theatre is at its most exciting when you’re not quite sure what else it has up its sleeve. By The End of Us attempts to adhere to this creed by appearing to be genuinely open-ended. We have an initial scenario with a few twists along the way, and together the audience and cast make it through to the end. But it just feels too loose. That’s not to say it’s not entertaining. The varying acting ability on display may prevent total immersion, but the cast are game for improvisation, and generated quite a few laughs in the auditorium. While the atmosphere in the auditorium was wholly jovial, there were however times when the laugh felt very much at the expense of the production. When the show was over (in this playthrough the target was assassinated), it ended with little fanfare, and no ending ‘cutscene’ to bookend the action, which felt like an oversight.

As a game, it feels glitchy. As a piece of theatre, it could embrace a more structured approach. The distinct impression was one of a company gamely trying to marshal chaos. While I attended the second performance, this felt to me like a problem that ran deeper with the show’s nature than mere preview jitters. Block Stop’s ambition and love for videogames is clear to see. However I can’t help but feel that a more disciplined approach would help their work shine brighter.

Chris Smyth

Running time: 70-100 minutes
Booking until 11th June

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