JESS HOWLEY-WELLS reviews The Residents presented by Teatro Vivo in association with The Albany.
The Residents feeds nicely into the current upward trend in immersive theatre. It is advertised on its promotional flyer as ‘a site-specific ghost story staged in homes across London’. What this really means is that you are not given the address of the venue until the day of the performance, which is emailed to you by Amelia Spoke, your estate agent. You are going to a house viewing at 155 New Cross Road: ‘Located in London’s Best Kept Secret, New Cross Gate, this spacious two-bedroom flat is conveniently situated above the recently refurbished Five Bells. With easy access to central London, this property must be seen to be believed’. You are cleverly invested in the performance even before your arrival.
Immersive theatre took root about a decade ago, and it seems to be here to stay. Just Google the term and a panoply of TimeOut and DesignMyNight pages parade their ‘Best Immersive Theatre Nights’ – they simply aren’t that rare any more. Is it because we are constantly seeking more intense experiences? This trend has become a bit of a zeitgeist, even museums are making their attractions ever more interactive: Madame Tussauds advertises their Star Wars feature as an ‘experience’; the relatively new Shrek Adventure on the Southbank promises a unique journey for every patron. Experiential, promenade, participatory, immersive: it is theatre that we are able to put our personal stamp on, and in this era of individualism, why wouldn’t it sell?
The first component needed to make a ghost story successful is apprehension, and what could be more unnerving than the awareness that you are going to be involved in it? The Residents begins with a captivating concept. Amelia Spoke (Kas Darley) is a convincing estate agent, meeting every prospective buyer with a handshake and a business card. She must work doubly hard, of course, to stop the words ‘ghost story’ rattling around our heads during every exchange; this doesn’t really happen, many of the audience tittering nervously as we climb the stairs at the back of the pub to reach the property, expecting something to grab them.
The entirety of the production takes place in one large sitting room. Amelia reveals a pile of chairs under a dustcover and invites us all to take a seat whilst we wait for any ‘latecomers’. The room is filled with nick-nacks from various eras, and low lit with multiple lamps. The action picks up when the lights go out and a radio spookily turns itself on to a debate about ‘gravitational wave technology’ and plants the seed for ghostly energies occupying spaces. It swells further as Amelia goes to look for a fuse-box, at which point we are joined in the room by two ghosts. Debbie Korley and Mark Stevenson play multiple character pairs, who have supposedly occupied the room at some point in history; they transition well between each story and manage to make each character they play distinctive, which is quite a feat simply due to the quantity of stories being told. Their sensitivity to detail, especially Korley’s, makes us firmly aware that this ghost story is not meant to scare us, but make us consider our own legacies.
Many of the ghost stories have a very literary basis, ranging from Kafka’s Metamorphosis to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Each story is condensed down into 5-10 minutes’ worth of theatre time, making it a little slap-dash to those familiar with the pieces and a little confusing to those who aren’t, and at times there is a little too much going on in terms of the script. The ghost stories that are the most successful dramatically are the ones specifically written for the piece, in which Sophie Austin’s strong direction is most apparent.
To say more would shatter the illusion beyond repair. Ultimately, this is a very exciting experience, one that it is impossible not to be entirely engaged in: Teatro Vivo deftly use the now developing conventions of immersive theatre to create a delicate world of stories you are not just immersed in, but moved by. The ghosts move around you as if you are not present and the estate agent acts as if they are not present, the play reaches a messy but satisfying denouement when these two worlds collide.
The Residents is being staged in homes across South London, 14th November – 3rd December. For tickets and more information: http://www.thealbany.org.uk/event_detail/1884/Theatre/The-Residents