This was supposed to be a longer article, but owing to a series of cancellations and sell-outs I’ve only managed to catch two fringe-scale plays. But it’s a pleasing two, which coincidentally share the same theme of dystopia.
Most dystopias are of a dystopian future. Black bright Theatre, however, entertains an alternate dystopian past. In these alternate 1980s Deborah and Megan are holed up in their farm deep in the Yorkshire Dales. The world has become a dangerous place since the disease took hold, spread through those who ate the flesh of infected pigs. Those who survived must evade the infected, who have been transformed into flesh-crazed monsters who can infect you. They must also, we presume, evade the vegans, who will never let you hear the last of this.
The Zombie Apocalypse is a trope that’s frequently dunked on. It’s the trope that’s been so over-used by films that it’s practically considered a genre in its own right. Every time a new zombie flick comes out people take the piss out of it with “OMG, this is the most brilliant idea for a film. You’ve got a world where this people become ZOMBIES, and they can turn other people into MORE ZOMBIES. But wait, here comes the best bit. There are survivors who group together, but the real danger is – wait for it – when they FIGHT AMONGST THEMSELVES!” Even when plays or films don’t play to trope stereotypes, it’s difficult to produce anything that’s original and not predictable. Madeline Farnhill’s primary challenge, therefore, is to somehow create something different in some way. How do you do that? Maybe play on the last corny real-life catchphrase? Learn to live with the virus?
The first sign that something’s a bit odd – even for the standards of a zombie apocalypse – is how trigger-happy Deborah is. There is an old saying that the best form of defence is attack, but she’s taken is two steps further and is taking to attacking assailants before they have the chance to attack her, or better still attack them before the thought of attacking her even crosses their minds. The reason, she claims, is that you never know who’s infected until it’s too late, but is that really the reason? She seems awfully dismissive of any alternative course of action. Is there something she’s not telling us? Is she so institutionalised she never wants the isolation to end? Is she terrified of meeting a vegan saying “I told you so”? Whatever the reason, Megan isn’t happy with the body count in the name of her survival. And when a child finally arrives, that is the line Megan is not prepared to cross.
Key to this play is the tension between the pair, which Angela Rose and Ellen Trevaskiss capture perfectly. The real test of acting skills, however, comes when things don’t go to plan. I am obliged to mention that the tech went a bit pear-shaped – new venues such as The Laurels always have teething problems and something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. As it happened, the sporadic and disjointed soundtrack worked quite well in the play and it wasn’t until the venue staff owned up at the end that I was certain this wasn’t supposed to happen. What really matters is how the actors handle this. And when the crucial sound cue inevitably happened at the wrong moment, they reacted to it well and made it sound like this was part of the plot.
I won’t give away more clues about the end-of-play twist,. I did, however, feel the second half of the play meandered a little too much through red herring plot threads that didn’t point to the inevitable end. Quite a lot of information is withheld until the last moment, and I wonder if it would have been better to have revealed some of this earlier. It’s a good twist though. What you really want is for the audience afterwards (if the penny didn’t drop during the play) to recall all the times this was alluded to and realise this couldn’t have gone any other way.
Theatre horror, I think, is underrated. It doesn’t help that so many horror films have abandoned any kind of suspense in favour of predictable paint-by-numbers bump-them-off-one-at-a-time stories (something that’s rarely practical for plays as you can’t usually sustain a cast big enough to sustain said bump-them-off-one-at-a-time), but horror on stage generally makes a much better effort with suspense, along with plot and characterisation. The odd thing is that I look at the small-scale theatre programmes into the major Newcastle venues, and I don’t recall any of them programming anything remotely in the horror genre. Perhaps they should take a look at whether their fringe programmes appeal to as wide an audience as they could be. In the meantime, it’s great that The Laurels is offering what the other venues don’t, and The Hunger is a fine showcase of horror that the rest of Tyneside seems to be missing out of.
So now it’s back from dystopian past to good old-fashioned dystopian future. Dystopian futures have been all the rage ever since the appearance of a certain TV series you may have heard of called Black Mirror. Indeed, the creatives of this show unashamedly compared themselves to this very series. However, Black Mirror is the sort of format which is hard to imitate well and easy to imitate badly. Even some high-profile authors don’t really pull it off. I saw Girl in the Machine earlier this year, and whilst I had nothing to fault with the production, I felt there was 20 minutes on concept in this play and the rest was padding with poetic polemics about how the characters were feeling. It wasn’t a terrible play, but Charlie Brooker has nothing to fear.
And so I am quite pleased to report that Ali Pritchard has pulled off this difficult challenge. The thing Black Mirror does well is to start at zero and introduce the audience to a new concept, whilst keeping a story going at the same time. It’s fair to say that this dystopia does sometimes feel a bit derivative from the Fifteen Million Merits episode, but the strength is in the new idea. Ali Prtichard isn’t the first person to write about a world after environmental devastation, nor is he the first to write about a new order where people willingly plug themselves into a sinister and unaccountable computer system, but he is the first person I’ve seen to write about a trade in memories.
The problem with this new world order is there isn’t much joy in the lives of the remaining on billion humans on the planet. What the survivors of the “crisis” do have are happy memories. Isabel (Key Greyson), born after the crisis, does not have that privilege. Wholeheartly subscribing to ever sinister human-AI plugin thrown her way, she fondly remembers the time she scross the road with her little girl – or rather someone else’s little girl, because that is a pre-crisis memory bought and sold. Julie (Christina Dawson) wants nothing to do with any of this, but with so many older people unable to keep up with the manual tasks they are set and falling into debt, some have no choice but to play the game.
However, like all new technologies, there is a seedier side. Not everybody gets happiness from U-rated wholesome memories. Some people get their kicks out of seedier and more depraved memories. And the really lucrative one are not just things that raise the vicar’s eyebrows but some really nasty stuff. The problem is that simply transplanting someone else’s memory into a new host isn’t quite working, especially the lucrative depraved memories. I won’t say what the problem is because that’s too good a twist to give away, but Opolis believes Julie and Isabel between them can provide the missing thing to make this work. Very good execution to a very good idea.
And then, just after this scene that made the setting of Opolois its most interesting – the play ends. To be fair, this is the Black Mirror format that works so well. Build up the concept in an hour, then it’s on the next. This one, however, I think, has more potential that 45 minutes, well-crafted as they were, aren’t enough to deliver. Dystopian futures don’t just stand or fall on dystopian concepts – a lot it comes down to how ordinary people interact with an extraordinary world. There was also so much of the world outside the room alluded to but never explored. I’m hesitant to say you should definitely make a longer play out of it, because I’ve seen a lot of promising nuggets fall down because the writer ran out of ideas to sustain a longer piece, but executed will it do achieve a lot.
Or, for a real challenge, this could work as a television series. I can see this working in a format where each episode plays out a story introducing a new concept, giving the viewers time to adjust to all of it. We might even get to hear what life is like in the highlights away from Opolis’s protection. Whatever the future for this, much credit much go to the team of four: Ali Pritchard, the cast of two, and Wilf Stone whose music fitted in perfectly with this vision. So far so good – and if there’s a next step on this journey, good luck.