Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Review: 'CULT' at The Pleasance, 14th October 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

It's easy to understand why people get sucked into cults. They provide a steady trickle of validation, long and short-term goals to aim for and the sense that you're part of something. In an atomised, individualistic world this can make all the difference: providing context and purpose. Of course, the downsides come when they empty your bank account, you're slurping down gruel in an isolated work camp and the leaders have started buying Nikes in bulk - but hey, no system is perfect.

ONEOHONE Theatre's CULT, performed as part of the London Horror Festival, captures this dichotomy. This is an interactive show where the audience becomes 'green' members of spiritual group Rise. With rankings themed around colours of the rainbow, we're lead through the session by three high-ranking indigo members. At first, things seem fairly typical, the leaders burble on about personal empowerment and positivity, quizzing audience members on their ambitions and problems they'd like to solve in their lives.

But all too soon you realise that 'Rise' has a twist in the tale (this is part of a horror festival after all). Genre aficionadoes will twig what Rise really is fairly early, but if you're not in the know, the revelations of what they are trying to accomplish should be quite the surprise. But, I'm not going to spoil the twist in my review, as I wouldn't have wanted to know it going in. 

What I will say is that ONEOHONE has clearly done their homework. The core of this cheery and cheesy iconography is clearly Scientology, but there's a ramshackle home-made quality to it that makes it slightly more endearing. Similarly, they successfully tap into the way that hierarchical systems within these groups tend to cause conflict, with none-too-subtle nudges towards emptying your pockets into their coffers.

Asia Osborne's direction also captures the hierarchical systems that cults use as control systems. Late in the show, various audience members are selected for promotion from green members to blue. Singling out people for special treatment has a neat psychological impact on the audience, with those chosen beginning to revel in their new status while the rest of us feel cheesed off, wondering what it was about us that made us unworthy.

The cast are also very strong. Eleanor Rushton does a hilariously awkward job of combining high-minded spiritual fulfilment with bureaucratic nudgings toward donations. But her subtly threats pale into comparison with true believers Louise Lee and Maryam Grace, who gently sheer the show towards the horror elements.

It's not all smooth sailing though. For example, there's an underdeveloped subplot about people trying to expose the cult's activities. This provides the meat for the final sequences of the show, but feels artificial in comparison to the vaguely naturalistic 'meeting' we're attending. Similarly, the ending is a slight anticlimax (though that may just be down to who was selected from the audience to appear on stage) though it's certainly a bold way of concluding a show.

A bigger problem is that CULT is an intimate show based around audience interaction and a sense of community, so staging it in the Main House in The Pleasance is a misstep. There are maybe 25-30 audience members in a theatre with a 230 seat capacity - and you really feel that empty space behind you. Plus, the stage is way too big for a show without any set to speak of and four cast members. CULT is an obvious fit for The Pleasance's Stagespace or Downstairs theatres, where closer proximity to the performers and other audience members in a smaller space would pay off dividends.

But, hey, I enjoyed myself, and CULT is a cleverly devised and thought through show. If you are wary of interacting with performers in front of an audience you can simply remove your green band to indicate you want to observe rather than participate. But I'd recommend you keep it on: there's a sense of danger running right through CULT and, just as in real life, you need to be careful you're not getting sucked in too deep.

CULT is at The Pleasance until 16th October 2019. Tickets here.

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