The Biscuit Factory, Edinburgh – until 16 June 2018
The Apocalypse is coming and it will be arriving in Leith in a few minutes – just in time for Year Zero, a piece of immersive theatre at the Biscuit Factory as part of the Leith Festival.
Fortunately, the small gaggle of people crowding around the entrance to Safe Zone BF-EH6 are in a mellow mood. Until the sirens start up and an automated voice begins to intone: “This is a wartime emergency broadcast, please take immediate shelter or report to your nearest safe site.”
So this is it, then. The end of the world as we know it. Being taken one by one into the Safe Zone not knowing what is happening inside, waiting for your pals to get in too. As the queue gets shorter, a car pulls up, some wet-behind-the-ears functionary gets out and begins talking self-importantly into his phone while the car screeches off in an impressive shower of dust and the smell of burning plastic. Meanwhile, the siren goes on, relentless.
Inside there are searches, tagging, questioning and decontamination before being ushered into a dark hall, where the mirrored windows reflect back iron beams and a screen that purports to belong to the Department of Emergency.
In fact, everything is stamped with the DoE logo – the stacks of food in the corner, the bundles of wire and hoppers of chemicals, the bio-chem hazard overcoat and the AV equipment.
Soon the “this is not a drill” klaxon has been swapped for that automated voice – on the edge of being trustworthy – reading from what sounds like the Thatcher Government’s Protect and Survive leaflet on what to do in the event of nuclear attack.
Any piece of immersive theatre that invites the audience to take part in a narrative needs to combine two often conflicting objectives. To be realistic – so that the audience are able to start to believe the new reality – while being theatrical, racking up emotional involvement of the audience in the event.
Immerse Productions, in their debut production under the direction of Sean Quinn, do a pretty good job up until this point. There aren’t too many incongruities to bump you out of your suspension of disbelief. And while an outside dramaturgical eye could do wonders for the engagement between performers and audience, the set-up actually works.
But then bombs fall and the actual play begins. A piece so lacking in structure and meaning that you begin to feel sorry for the actors. The main roles are relatively well done – a woman in a lab coat and the smarmy lad who was outside turn up and start bossing people around with an offhand sense of entitlement. A couple of the security detail begin to question that authority.
And that, some spoilery details aside, is about it. There’s a lot of milling around. Some utterly gratuitous “let’s split up” moments, a bit of running about and some problem solving that makes the whole thing feel like an escape room.
There’s no drama or sense of engaging with the subject – or even deciding what the subject is. And when you return, blinking, to the light it is with a sense of “is that all there is?”.
The actors get an extra star, they did a decent job in extreme circumstances. But while there might be something interesting lingering inside Year Zero, it needs a lot more thought on several levels to first decide what it is and then to bring it out.