Den, Shoreditch Town Hall

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by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

After working on Tristan Sharps’ Absent at The Shoreditch Town Hall in 2015, I have been given an education in the building’s rich maze of ballrooms and basements, shiny bars and crusty corridors, peeling paint and underground nooks and crannies that both delight and disorientate in equal measure. Dream Think Speak Company did just that, honouring the architecture of the building in a site specific work that set a precedent for work to come. As the evening of May 4th unfolds it seems that Cass Arts are unaware of their sophisticated forbears when they claim to produce “site-specific performances and installations on the themes of secrecy and disguise” in Den. As contemporary immersive theatre expands from the spectacle of Punch Drunk to the intimacy of Sheila Ghelani, Cass Arts have widely missed the context in which they have placed themselves.

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Party Trap, Shoreditch Town Hall

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Politicians and members of the press are hardly the best of bedfellows. Unrestrained and violent, Ross Sutherland’s Party Trap explodes this relationship in a dystopian TV interview between journalist Sir David Bradley and MP Amanda Barkham after a landmark decision classifying political criticism as hate speech. Sutherland sets himself the challenge of telling his story through a script that’s an extended palindrome – an impressive feat, were it executed with more of a focus on storytelling rather than showing off a clever concept.

The palindromic writing isn’t particularly pronounced; instead it creates a haunting sense of deja vu once the script passes the halfway point. The shift in power and control from David to Amanda, and the action’s dark turn prevents it from turning stale, but the script structure is still more of a hindrance than a help. The language takes precedence over story clarity, so the plot soon muddies. The slightly futuristic premise becomes less and less tenable, to the point that the entire reality of the piece is called into question. There is little solid ground on which to build a sturdy plot line; language isn’t enough even though this experiment is certainly an interesting one.

The performances are one of the biggest disappointments. Cold and detached, they are couched in venomous sarcasm and violence. Simon Hepworth as Sir David Bradley has some nice moments of vulnerability and depth, but these are too little and too late. Otherwise, he and Zara Plessard are ruthless, calculating and distant. Video performances of other characters are relied on to fill in for news broadcasts and line managers with disturbing agendas; these characters are as self-absorbed as the two on stage.

The design elements are unobtrusive and tie the production together well, with Sutherland’s projections and video being particularly slick.There is no question that Party Trap is well-planned and thought out, but the concept is so prominent that it prevents a story from shining through. It’s a worthy experiment, but one that doesn’t work.

Party Trap runs through 1 October.

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