It’s taken me a long while considering I made a resolution quite early on in the pandemic, but finally I’ve managed to see a live production which has the name Chronic Insanity attached to it. This Nottingham-based group really shook up the world of online theatre with innovative mould breaking content as they attempted (and succeeded) in putting out 12 pieces of material each year and called into question the whole notion of what theatre actually is. I was a constant visitor to their online and audio material, so was looking forward to what they would serve up on a real life stage; however, it was touch and go for a while whether I would fully achieve that aim (read on for clarity).
For their latest piece entitled Snowflakes CI have partnered up with Dissident Theatre in a production at London’s Park Theatre. It’s a dystopian alternative reality comedy drama – more the latter than the former – which doesn’t exactly break new ground content wise for the group or more generally. Nevertheless, it proves to be an absorbing evening with some pertinent things to say about cancel culture, casual violence and the ubiquitous rise and rise of reality TV. Apparently, in its latest Channel 4 incarnation, Scared Of the Dark, celebrities are subjected to existing… well, in the dark. No wonder the Guardian has badged it “the stupidest reality show of all time”. The livestreamed TV programme in Snowflakes however is infinitely more sinister and concerning as it is predicated on an audience deciding on whether a summary execution should be carried out or not and, if so, then the manner of dispatch to be employed.
The intended recipient in this particular instance is Tony (Henry Davis) a celebrity writer who has attracted the attention of social media for a past, non-specified but gender related crime and who is holed up in an anonymous hotel room. He’s clearly not an altogether pleasant character but Robert Boulton’s impressive debut script doesn’t openly condemn him as a lost cause which gives proceedings a certain amount of edge. There’s a particularly telling and animated late speech from Davis which gives his character a whole new edge and is in complete contrast to the unconscious and/or trussed up figure he cuts for most of the play.
The deed is to be carried out by a pair of hit people, Sarah (Louise Hoare) who is new to proceedings and Marcus (Boulton himself) who has far more skin in the game. The former is a handy construct so that the audience can learn the ropes at the same time although there is more to the character than at first meets the eye. This gives Hoare the slightly unenviable task of playing on more than one level and although she makes an accomplished fist of the discrepancy I was feeling by the interval that the portrayal didn’t quite hang together. Marcus is rather more linear as a character and one that demonstrates how simple it might be to attract a psychotic personality to such a role; he’s particularly interested in deploying power tools to achieve his goal and is not short on inflicting mental as well as physical cruelty on his victim. His state of the nation speech (cruelly interrupted – see below) was expertly delivered – more than once, as it turned out.
The playing of the trio in this piece is focused and strong and ensures that audience empathy regularly switches between them all. We too are watching and the question arises as to whether we would be complicit in such an act of social cleansing. Much of the second half is also relayed through a live video feed projected onto the window blinds of Alys Whitehead’s well realised set; these offer compelling close ups which are rife with intensity. They also give us a sense of what the unseen livefeed audience are supposedly seeing in their homes as they vote for their dispatch of choice.
There was a major power outage about ten minutes into part two which plunged the theatre (indeed, apparently the whole area) into darkness. For about thirty seconds I was convinced it was part of the plot but it was by no means certain that the show could continue, especially as the production relies heavily on the very effective videography of Dan Light and the smokily moody lighting design of Jonathan Chan. However, the production team/Park Theatre swung into action and after a hiatus the show proceeded to its conclusion – bravo! Unfortunately it meant some impetus had been lost – especially coming so shortly after a perhaps unnecessary interval – but the undaunted trio of actors soon had us back in the disturbingly believable scenario they were presenting.
And its regrettable plausibility is, in the end, the element which keeps this a compelling play for our times. If, as a society we are prepared to tolerate and even encourage isolating people from actual reality, egg them on to engage in voyeuristic sexual coupling, feed them squeamish inducing bits of live creatures and, now, plunge them into a sensory deprivation scenario then surely it is only a short hop until we reach the logical outcomes depicted in this play.