Don’t Go Outside: the unknown enemy

Not the most original plot, but Don’t Go Outside consolidates Twenty Seven Productions’ status as Newcastle leaders in site-specific theatre.

Ever since Alphabetti Theatre set up in 2015, it’s provided a base for a lot of small groups in Newcastle. However, one notable exception to this rule is Twenty Seven Productions. Whilst most groups have been jostling for coveted slots in Alphabetti’s programme, Twenty Seven are making a name for themselves with site-specific pieces. They have been in the Victoria Tunnel and the Tyne Theatre, but their most successful play is surely Wytch at Newcastle Castle, the site of the 1650 witch trials that this play recreates. One year later and they are back, but this time, the castle is refuge in an apocalyptic nightmare.

Two men bring in an unconscious woman into the Great Hall. We know very little about them, and when she comes round, we don’t learn that much about her either. What we do know is that something very bad is going on outside, with shouting and helicopters and explosions being heard. Prior to the play, we catch snatches of radio broadcasts about some sort of virus leading to some sort of violence, and somehow this has escalated into an emergency and an evacuation of the city that all three missed. The castle is their latest refuge – St. James’s Park has already been blown up in the fighting. No-one can be trusted to be be let in. The good news is that one of the men, James, has taken the lead and seems to know what he’s doing to hold out and survive. The bad news is that that he turns out to be insane.

There is one obvious issue with the story: it’s the zombie apocalypse, one of the most over-used tropes in both film and theatre. (Technically we don’t know whether or not the things outside are zombies, but a virus that leads to violence is a heavily-used variant of this trope.) It’s near-impossible to find a new take on this format that hasn’t already been done to death. It can be done, and sometimes I’ve been surprised, but the central key to the plot here is that there’s danger on both the inside and the outside. James, we quickly learn, is quite into his Christianity, which is not necessarily a problem, but is a problem if, like James, it’s someone who takes the Book of Revelations a bit too seriously and is way too enthusiastic about setting up a new morally pure world order. His character sets up the conflict well – but it struggles to stand out from all the other “enemy within” plot twists in zombie flicks.

However, the plot is well written and well paces, with the tension suitably ramped up over the play. Lots of details are never resolved, in particular exactly what’s out there and what’s going on, but in this play, that pretty much adds to the story, with the choice of whether to leave and face the unknown danger outside, or stay and face the unknown danger inside. There was an issue with the acoustics; the combination of the background noise and the stone walls of the Great Hall sometimes made it tricky for the actors’ lines to be heard. It didn’t spoil the play, and these details in site-specific pieces can easily catch you out, but it would have helped to keep the sound at more manageable levels during important bits of dialogue, and some more diligent sound-checking might have helped. I wouldn’t want them do to away with the sound altogether, though, because the noise outside did a lot to add to the setting of a refuge with something terrifying going on outside.

There’s a week left of this play to run, and it’s fair to say that this is a play where you know what you’re getting. The zombie apocalypse format is popular for a reason, and provided you come to the play knowing what to expect, you shouldn’t be disappointed. But I’m going to set down a challenge for Twenty Seven Productions for future projects. They are swiftly emerging as Newcastle premier company for site-specific productions, and we can expect good performances from any space they use. But enough of living to expectations. Now it’s time for the unexpected. I hope that they are back in Newcastle Castle next year, but next time I hopeit’s something that surprises me.

Don’t Go Outside runs until Sunday 5th November. All performances are at 7.30 p.m.

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