Chronic Insanity is on a mission to bring the world 12 Plays In 12 Months and so far are right on schedule. As with my last visit a few weeks back I thought I’d wait a while until there were two more new pieces to investigate. Having understood the complex nature of their material (or at least the highly complex style(s) in which they tend to present it) I took a deep breath and plunged in – just as well I did because I needed all my wits about me for the first piece.
Released in late March it is called Flavour Text (and I’m going to quote directly from the company website here as they explain what it is it much better than I ever could): “Flavour Text is the term used to describe the environmental storytelling that gives an audience extra insight into a fictional world. The written equivalent of a found footage film, Flavour Text is an internet wide, narrative treasure hunt.”
Indeed it is. It all starts simply enough with trying to investigate why an Italian restaurant has suddenly closed down. This involves looking through an authentic looking website for clues and then following the trail via Twotter, Focebook and Moospace to work out what had happened to cause a spate of disappearances in Bermondsey. Following an electronic trail of clues leads to an understanding (of sorts). I eventually ended up “on the dark web” looking through various conspiracy theories which attempted to explain why life was apparently so random while actually being linked in all sorts of ways one could hardly imagine.
I’d have to use the verb constructed rather than written about this piece as everything was carefully structured to lead the viewer through the baffling maze; alternately it was also there to bamboozle and guide you down lots of interesting blind alleys which did not advance your cause at all but showed just how much work had gone into the experience. There is certainly a lot of reading which must be carried out but once you learn what sort of thing you are looking for it all becomes easier to skip forward. This, however, would be a pity as part of the fun of this experience is immersing yourself in the incidentals (listening to songs, playing videos) which give richness and depth.
I particularly appreciated all the oblique references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books including a “real” contact you could go to on Twitter for extra clues if you got stuck – and I certainly did. There were also diversions onto real sites (e.g. BBC News) but as these also tended to deal with the esoteric
I began to find fact and fiction were getting very blurred. The five strong construction team (Megan Gates, Charlotte Holder, Ruth Mestle, Harry Smith and Sophie Whitebrook) do a first class job in keeping the viewer entertained but with no actual script, actors, dialogue, characters, direct interaction or any of the trappings of “normal” drama I found myself genuinely enquiring whether it was really theatre at all and not just an elaborate game. Perhaps they are pretty much the same and perhaps that’s the point. Give yourself plenty of time if you have a go at this and be ready to have your perceptions about the theatre world and the more general world around you radically challenged.
And so, onto April’s offering with There’s Something Among Us, written by Joe Strickland who also directs and appears. More game playing dominates the narrative of this piece as the various characters who are housemates go online to play a game where, via their onscreen avatars, they have to work out who is an imposter and out to murder the others (virtually, of course). The ins and outs of the game they are playing do not matter as much as the tensions and recriminations that are released and developed in the gaps between the game play. It becomes apparent that an ex-housemate, Sam, has been driven from the group through a combination of circumstances which means that all the others are partly responsible for his fate (basically it’s the same idea as that behind J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls). Gradually the apparently friendly and positive people are all revealed as real imposters hiding their inadequacies, squabbles and true feelings behind another more meaningful projected avatar of themselves as lifestyle gurus, fitness and well-being coaches and apparently supportive but quite subversive people. There certainly is something among them – mostly festering grudges. Life comes to imitate art – in more ways than one – and it’s going to be game over for a fair few of them. A word of caution here – avoid looking at the cast list if you don’t want a spoiler for the ending although it really doesn’t come as that much of a surprise.
An interesting wrinkle which makes everything a bit more interactive is that as each of the three game plays start you get to choose which of the gamers to directly follow and become privy to their real thoughts. Alternatively, you can choose to follow one of them throughout, but this would seem to be against the spirit of the piece; for reference, I chose Platypus (Joe Strickland), BeccaBakes (Amber Wadey) and BGFIT (Ben Gilbert). There will, therefore, be some characters you don’t get to engage with but, of course, the experience can always be replayed; even if you don’t there’s enough to give you the general drift. I didn’t really relate to any of the characters but that’s probably because online game playing is not something I’ve ever tried, not have I ever rented rooms in a house share, so it was all rather beyond my experience. Watching characters on a screen watching characters on a screen is an odd premise for a piece of drama but it more or less holds together. Once again Chronic Insanity has provided an intricate puzzle which teeters on the edge of theatre as we used to know it; it will be interesting to see how far they can keep pushing the boundaries as they continue their mission throughout 2021.