Caroline Gaunt is plunged into a world of ’emotion, immersion and pretention.’
Interactive and devised theatre has long been absent from The Assembly Rooms stage, and if Dom Riley’s The Theatre is to set a precedent I have mixed emotions about its return.
Certain aspects of the production are innovative, witty, wry and even brilliant. Others fall short, never disastrously so, but enough to make the production feel, at times, a little rough around the edges.
Most of the problems are inherent in the structure of the production, which leaves the audience to roam around the Assembly Rooms (re-named 'The Theatre'), ostensibly of their own free will but frequently with the guidance of various ushers and under the delicately menacing eye of the proprietor, Henry Walken (Joe Burke).
It’s a brilliant and startlingly original concept, but one which could have benefited from a slightly more controlled structure: I felt that I was being hurried away from the vignettes before I’d been able to get a true sense of character or plot. This was most notable in the climax of the production, where Will Clarke’s Leo, who I’d previously had down as just your average downtrodden theatre assistant with dreams of glittering success, underwent an apparently bipolar transformation into full-on mania, leading to a bewildering and sudden conclusion to the production.
Presumably there were clues to this mania elsewhere in the production, but depending on which route you took around the theatre it would have been easy to miss them completely. But then again, since real life doesn’t always follow a totally linear pattern perhaps I’m being a little unfair here.
Conversely, some vaguely comic ideas were extrapolated into never-ending scenes which became tedious – the health and safety instruction on how to descend the staircase and the fight workshop being prime examples. Furthermore, whilst dispensing entirely with the fourth wall from the outset is always laudable, I’m not sure whether some attempts at interaction were a little misplaced: many of the audience members wiping various scrawls from their faces (courtesy of the make-up lady) seemed more annoyed than amused.
However, I don’t want to undermine what has actually been accomplished here, especially as the production only had a week to come together. The Theatre is nothing if not totally committed to immersion: I have rarely seen such a thorough transformation of the Assembly Rooms, which means that even at its most bewildering, The Theatre remains convincing (albeit if you suspend disbelief a little). The zany humour does boast some comic gems: including a brilliant discussion on the dominance of red in the Assembly Rooms from Burke and a sardonic nod to the exploitation of tech assistants.
On the acting side, The Theatre boasts a very strong ensemble, with notable performances from Ella Taylor Baron and Elizabeth Johnson as Cecily and Kate, a brilliant pair of rival actresses who bring energy and naturalism to their bitching, whilst evidently remaining totally in control of their characters and engaging the audience from the outset. Rob Symmons has arguably the strongest start and strongest material as Kenneth, the health and safety officer, but unfortunately ran out of the steam which would have carried his scene. This felt like a perennial problem for all concerned – by the end of an hour the impetus to engage and even to remain unshakably in character seemed to be waning. Without wishing to denigrate the amount of effort and will-power that must go into an hour improvising with an unpredictable audience, I got the impression that the actors were willing the show to end.
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of The Theatre. I’m certain that it’s the most original thing to hit Durham this year – and probably the most original piece I’ve ever seen performed in the Assembly Rooms – but a novel concept doesn’t always translate to stellar theatre.
With a little more tweaking Dom Riley could have a truly arresting, darkly comic production on his hands – but The Theatre as it stands currently is still some way from this goal.