Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review: 'Incoming / Exodus' at Camden People's Theatre, 18th October 2017

Incoming/Exodus reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

It's easy to watch politicians from the sidelines and think you could do better, especially given the shambolic state of the current bunch of bastards. You look at governmental disasters like universal credit, disability means testing or cruel sanctioning of jobseekers and wonder whether those involved are malicious or just incompetent (or both). Yup, if I were in their shoes, I'd definitely do better.

Well, now you're given the chance, courtesy of The Lab Collective's Incoming / Exodus. This interactive show (it bills itself as immersive, but I think this is stretching it a little bit) invites the audience to represent the London Borough of Camden and choose who's to be resident here. We begin by being divided into north, south, east and west districts, then we're asked to nominate a councillor to represent us, and given quick overviews of applicants who want to live in our borough.

These range from a professor of Islamic Studies who cannot teach under a repressive regime, a mother hoping to take advantage of Camden's excellent education reputation, a Russian genderqueer journalist who doesn't feel safe, a young Portuguese mechanic "who'll do anything for his brother" and so on. Each is ranked, Top Trumps style, based on what they can bring to Camden and what Camden will have to do for them. But we can only take so many new residents and the clock is ticking. What do we do?

Performed/wrangled by Matthew Flacks and Amelia Vernede, Incoming / Exodus is a chaotic and lively show that sometimes teeters on the edge of absurdity. The audience is invited to interject at any moment to quiz the cast and councillors on their decisions, the rules under which we must operate and all manner of nitpicking minutia (the oddest being when someone argues that "paedophiles just can't help themselves"). I'll say this though, if you've ever attended a local council meeting or some kind of community forum, you'll recognise that the show does an uncanny job in recreating the febrile, frustrating inertia of group-based decision making.

What comes out of this tangle of opinions and egos is fascinating stuff. The applicants are blank canvases - we get just a brief paragraph about who they are and a couple of meaningless numbers - but upon this, the overwhelmingly white, middle-class audience projects a mountain of assumptions and ideas onto them, essentially inventing people whole-cloth to argue over. 

For my money, the best thing about Incoming/Exodus is the way it outlines an immoral system that reduces human beings to a set of stats (almost exactly the tactics of the current Tory government wrt to benefits means testing and immigration criteria) and then shows how, given a sniff of power, a group of London liberals will happily participate in said system without making any serious effort to reform it. Granted, there were some rumblings of breaking away from the system and finding a better procedure, but they're almost immediately silenced by a familiar nod to security.

It adds up to a fine demonstration of people's moral malleability, reminding me a bit of the famous Milgram experiment where authority figures talked 'normal' people into administering (what they thought were) fatal electric shocks to volunteers. The sting in the tail of all this is Flacks ending the show with "you had the opportunity to change things. You missed it. Maybe next time...".

Incoming/Exodus is a bold achievement in political theatre, successful in getting people to behave counter to their beliefs without them ever realising it. But then, the show rests so much on the audience that every single performance has the potential to produce an entirely different result - from bovine conformity right through to full-blown rebellion. Do you see injustice in the world and feel a burning desire to change things? If so, get a ticket to this and see if you really could. 

The answer might surprise you.

Incoming/Exodus is at the Camden People's Theatre until 21 Oct. Tickets here.

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