Colab Factory, London – until 8 December 2019
Taking audiences back to 1979 when Britain was on the brink of political collapse for the second time in a decade, Crisis? What Crisis? is Parabolic Theatre’s thrilling live-action board game.
I had issues with the Crisis What Crisis, which premiered as part of the Croydonites Festival. Parabolic Theatre’s openness and accessible productions such as For King and Country and Land of Nod felt at odds with this niche period of history, the vote of no confidence in James Callaghan’s government in March 1979.
A friend (who is 19) emailed me and asked what she had just participated in. It was confusing and she struggled to find a reference point. Who can blame her? It is the sort of thing that attracts hardcore politicos and a production can only hope they have an interest in history or saw This House by James Graham, which covers the dramatics of 1974-79 Labour government and is one of my favourite ever plays.
On my trip back in May the issue was that the audience was full of immersive theatre fans and hardcore political fans; which alienated those that fell in between. People were clueless and sat quietly with little to do, those with knowledge dominated and theatre doesn’t sit right anyway; it is pretentious and weird. We all know it, when it has the possibility of making you feel stupid that is even harder to bear.
To be fair to Parabolic they are right to take the risk and damn those that have never heard of this event, described “one of the most dramatic nights in Westminster history” it is a fascinating time in history; sandwiched between the 1975 EEC referendum, the 1979 Scottish Devolution vote and the industrial disputes, Union dominance and eventual election of Margaret Thatcher as PM. Parabolic asks its audience to change the course of history (or at least delay it a bit) through economic, political and civil game play our job is to ensure Callaghan wins that election.
The larger space is an improvement on the Croydon run – the ghastly walkie talkies have been removed (why do immersive productions have such hard ons for walkie talkies?) and focuses on a inclusive experience with much of the action taking place in one room and everyone having an option to get stuck in or watch from the sidelines.
It felt much clearer this time; focusing on two party politics with odd references to smaller parties (like getting Plaid Cymru on side by promising them a Welsh language channel). The aim of the game is numbers. Some numbers need to be high and some numbers lower. It isn’t always easy to find a balance. The game’s focus is on votes from MPs, economical factors such as inflation, treasury and FTSE30 and the likelihood of civil unrest and Union disputes. At one point inflation was at 26%! Putting Norman Lamont’s measly numbers of 1992 into shame.
As the group is split into three fractions everyone is working to an overall aim they also have their own goals which means decisions are made and only found out in public scenarios. Eventually the generous policy of giving money to the unions had to be controlled.
Any show is as good as its audience: if you happen to find yourself in a group of lefties (let’s face it a production about the 1979 Labour government is going to attract hardcore lefties) but it is also an audience full of good heart or a competitive streak. When a radio phone in became a disaster an audience member sprinted over to rescue them. The attention to detail is key with seventies era fax machines, telephones, furniture and political videos from the time, without it I don’t think audiences could get lost in avoiding civil unrest and keeping unions happy. This felt a much more inclusive and understandable show in its new home.
What makes Crisis What Crisis special is the strong storyline and convincing performances in combination with game play. Tom Black, who has written and devised the show is your Alistair Campbell-esque guide for the night, sweary, northern and Labour to the core he contrasts well with Beth Jay’s Jenny from the Whips Office who will guide you into the charming or blackmailing the right MPs or Karen from the Civil Service (Zoe Flint) who is officially neutral (except if policy involves improving Whitehall). It was a shame not to see more of Angus Woodward who was the highlight of the Croydonites run but who took on a more general negotiator role as George Deakin, the leader of the Lorry Union. Owen Kingston’s clear love and respect for immersive theatre means this is a fun and informative night of politics without having to stand in any election or actually work in politics.
If you enjoyed This House you will probably enjoy pretending to be part of a Labour government at one of its most tempestuous periods. At a time where productions are trying to push the boundaries of immersive this feels wholesome, with its lack of indulgence and conflict and a reasonance with the world outside.
Crisis, What Crisis is on until 8 December (though I would pay good money to see this on 13th December..)