Everyone has that moment – you’re at a party or in a public place and there are two people over in the corner clearly having a conversation, and you’re dying to listen in because you know it’s something good (they’re about to break up, they’re having an argument, someone’s about to admit something deliciously awful etc.). Now imagine being able to press a button and, from the other side of the room, be able to hear every word. That was Gatecrash. That, and so much more.
When we entered, we were told we were about to attend Sam’s (Alex Harvey Sporle) surprise birthday party. Sam himself had just been sent to the shops and his sister Jazz (Melissa Grace) is hurrying the guests in while he’s away. We were also given a pair of headphones with a volume control and a single button which enabled us to switch between the headphone’s only two channels. At the beginning, it did take a bit of effort to suspend disbelief at such a premise. The actors were clearly identifiable – they were the only guests not wearing headphones – but that slight awkwardness was part of the atmosphere. It was another commonplace experience – being at a party where you don’t really know anyone, not even Sam. At one point, Imogen (Elena Valentine) asked me how I knew Sam. I told her from school, probably. “Yeah, probably,” she answered, nodding along and refilling my drink.
The awkwardness was played off well – early on, Sam quietly complains to Jazz that he hardly knows most of these people, and after that my being there felt more natural. The living room was convincing. I spent a lot of the play chilling out on a sofa, usually with one of the actors when they weren’t in conversation. At one point, someone ordered Domino’s and I bagged myself a slice. The audience was handled with skill. When Jazz and Jonno (Luke Vernon) brought out a limbo rope, it felt natural and everyone played along. When they put the rope away, there was naturally a large empty space where it had been, right when the plot called for one. As a device, it worked – the actors didn’t have to herd us into a corner, we were already there. This was the kind of organic audience manipulation that is so hard to pull off in immersive theatre, but that Gatecrash handled with aplomb.
The two channel system was frustrating but efficient. There were key moments throughout the play wherein all the actors were engaged in conversation together and both channels played the same, but for the majority of the performance, the audience could listen to one of two conversations. Often one was more interesting than the other, but there were times when I wanted to listen to both and couldn’t. Though frustrating, it’s a testament to the play that I wanted to, and that frustration, like much of the performance, was part of the experience.
The standout actor of the night was Luke Vernon – while the other actors played their parts well, his seemingly boundless energy was what kept the play moving and refused to let that immersion drop. While all the actors engaged in their share of audience interaction (Imogen made me dance, Jazz told me to hide when her neighbour knocked on the door and Sam kicked me out of the comfy armchair) Jonno’s interaction was relentless, ubiquitous and natural.
My main criticism of the play lies is the play itself – the script that is. The story was your set of standard 17-year-old house party plots. He likes her, she likes that other one, and so on. The script was natural in places but rarely inspiring. Though the atmosphere dragged me in, the script and the plot felt second to that, like a team had created an impressive feat of immersive theatre and then draped a story over it at the end in order to deliver the experience. The characters were teenage archetypes and lacked subtlety, the acting was obvious and the plot immaterial. As an experiment to test the naturality of their immersive theatre, it worked. As a play in its own right, it didn’t fail by any means, but it didn’t grab either. This may well be a product of the fact that the play’s target audience is 14-18 years old, but nonetheless, there is great room for improvement. The atmosphere, the skill with which the actors integrated the crowd and my voyeuristic excitement at listening in to their private conversations will linger in my mind long after the character’s names, their troubles and the content of those conversations are forgotten.
Gatecrash is a hugely successful show. If you’ve never been to a piece of immersive theatre, Gatecrash is the perfect introduction. If you’re looking for a plot driven piece of theatre with a nuanced narrative and memorable characters, maybe head over to the Globe, that’s not what Gatecrash is for.
Gatecrash will be continuing its run at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith until March 18th, starting at 7pm with an earlier extra performance on Friday at 5pm. Further performances in the 2016 National Tour can be found here. You can book your tickets for the Hammersmith leg of the tour online here, or by calling 0208 741 6850.
CAST AND CREW
Jazz: Melissa Grace
Imogen: Elena Valentine
Jonno: Luke Vernon
Sam: Alex Harvey Sporle
Rachel: Amy Forde
Voice of Neighbour: Casey Wells
Voice of Dad: Jordan Blackwood
Director: Toby Ealden
Set and Lighting Design: Myk Hoyle
Sound Design/Technical Manager: Ari Levy
Company Manager: Jordan Blackwood
Assistant Stage Manager: Casey Wells
Producer: Fiona Moon