Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Review: 'The Tiend' at the Old Red Lion Theatre 10-30th October 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

'Immersive' theatre has become a marketing buzzword that's slapped on the side of any show with the tiniest bit audience interaction in the hope of drawing in the punters. But ONEOHONE Theatre's The Tiend is truly immersive in a way I've not experienced before. Billed as an 'interactive theatrical journey', The Tiend is a three-week long interactive horror narrative told via your smartphone, social media and the internet. 

When the show begins, characters begin contacting you by WhatsApp, adding you on Twitter or speaking on the telephone as they spin an enigmatic, interconnected tale whose path depends on your choices and responses. On top of that, there's a face-to-face meeting late in the show in which you meet one of the characters you've been chatting to and prove how much you've learned.

As soon as I heard about this I snapped up a spot. I'm always on the lookout for new ideas in theatre and a show that takes place online in various forms of media sounded right up my street. It sounded to me like a more theatrical and personal 'alternate reality game', which Wikipedia defines as: "an interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform and employs transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players' ideas or actions".

And so, come October the 10th I started receiving messages on Whatsapp. "You.. You intrigue me. Are you worthy?" or a garbled and cryptic "yOu ifoUNd you But so did the otHer one." Then I found a very strange Twitter account in which someone was growing increasingly paranoid about their five-year-old son, which led to a very strange website of a possibly psychic life coach...

The highlight of the experience was the face to face meeting. For me, this consisted of a job interview for a shadowy organisation devoted to nefarious ends. I love improvising and the woman interviewing me was insanely fun to bounce ideas off and see how she'd react to things. Interacting in this way with a fictional character is something you can only achieve in immersive theatre, and though this is a brief chat it was fun, exciting and interesting.

In fact, I learned more about what was actually going on in The Tiend in that ten minutes than I had in the previous two weeks. The show requires its audience to put in a lot more legwork than I'd first assumed, with riddles to be solved and interpersonal connections to be teased out. Perhaps this is more on me than the show, but I (and the friends I enlisted to help me out) had absolutely no idea how to solve the various puzzles the game threw my way, and even when I outright asked the characters help I didn't get much back.

For example, after a week or so of being just plain confused, I tried to engage one of the characters in conversation. What I got back as an answer was, "I am not sure whether you are worthy of my interest, or my partnership, or my hate.  Or my indifference. I am still not sure which of those burdens best suits you." to which I frustratedly replied: "cut it with the cryptic crap and tell me what's going on". I didn't receive a response.

Amongst the cast of characters you message with, I just wanted someone to have a normal conversation with who didn't speak in enigmatic spirals. The closest I got was a chat on Twitter with a woman having trouble with her child, but she felt like a character in a video game endlessly repeating variations on the same few lines.

The guide to the show claims: "It is possible to take part in The Teind without any interaction.  If you don’t want to talk back to the characters, you don’t have to – the story will still unfold in its own time, and you will still be invited to the final meeting". I don't think this is true, if you didn't interact with it at all the experience would consist of a handful of head-scratching context-free text messages and a pretty bizarre one-to-one meeting.

I found The Tiend a neat experiment, but not one which ever really interested, gripped or scared me. More than most theatre, this show lives and dies on the strength of its audience, so perhaps I'm the weak link in the chain here. Either way, at least as far as I'm concerned, I appreciated the concept far more than the execution. 

Apparently, ONEOHONE has plans to stage something like this again - I'd love to see how it develops after they've smoothed out a couple of the rough edges.

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