Belt Up Theatre Company were recently named one of four ‘bright new things of British theatre’ by The Guardian. In spite of traditional British reservation, immersive theatre is becoming increasingly trendy. Making an awkward and overdue lurch for the bandwagon, I purchased a ticket to their interactive theatrical experience,The Boy James, at the Southwark Playhouse this January.
The Southwark Playhouse’s dimly lit bar was buzzing with groups of intellectual types in their mid twenties, who seemed to have perfected an effortless and fashionable balance of bohemian and chic. The problem with interactive theatre is exactly this: the intimidating wait, the cultured but edgy audience members, the fear. The fear of being asked to contribute and, after listening enviously to other peoples’ kooky answers, realising you have absolutely nothing witty or intelligent to say. Perhaps I was scarred by a pantomime faux pas as a child; but I am pretty sure that, after Belt Up’s confession that ‘plays are much more fun if the audience get naked and run around’, my anxiety is normal.
Back in my social nightmare, between pretending to text, checking my watch and making an exceptionally leisurely trip to the toilet, I was wishing the literature in my bag were a high brow Russian novel and not eChatf magazine. Feeling the weight of a socially awkward disposition it seemed the only option was to get gratuitously drunk; a social manoeuvre I almost certainly learned in St Andrews. Alas, having neither the money nor the time, I entered the theatre disappointingly sober. Thank goodness I did.
The show was intimate, engaging, and beautifully written. The audience, sitting on chairs and cushions around the study-cum-play den, were readily involved. However reluctant the audience began, charming Boy (Jethro Compton) involved them with apparent ease. Compton said in interview, ‘there is something here that can only be felt when you make the journey and go along with the Boyfs adventure.’ Hefs right. Blowing raspberries at inappropriate moments in cahoots with the lead character, no matter how silly it sounds, creates an intimate connection. The audience feels the Boy Jamesfs sorrows much more acutely; they are, like him, made to grow up too.
The noticeable trend in theatre towards audience involvement is for a good reason. The success of highly interactive companies like ‘Ontroerend Goed’ and ‘Punchdrunk’ as well as the recurrence of the ‘One-on-One festival’ at the Battersea Arts Centre are prime examples. This sort of theatre is nerve racking for the same reasons it is effective; there is a chance it will say something about you, as well as the characters in the play. A wider commentary on human nature, yes, but at the bar without a book, this promise seems a little too risky. Having, it seems, used this review as catharsis for my own social insecurities I can confidently assure you it is well worth the risk. No matter how, socially awkward, nervous, uncultured, uneducated or unimpressively dressed you are, invest in seeing something a little more immersive. You might be made to feel something more intense than usual.