Wednesday 11 June 2008

Black Tonic – Camden People's Theatre

Written for

Black Tonic is one of the growing corpus of theatrical pieces that take place in non-theatrical spaces. Those wishing to see the piece (generally in pairs, although I saw it alone) book their tickets through the Camden People's Theatre and are given the address of a rather plush-looking hotel and a time at which to arrive. You are then ushered to a waiting area in the hotel lobby, are sat down and gradually become aware that the couple sat opposite you could well be part of the performance. Similarly, that slightly tipsy looking woman seated nearby, maybe she's part of the piece too. They are all drinking the same cola and vodka-based cocktail detailed in the piece's programme.

The couple are chatting quietly but audibly. It is like listening in to any conversation in a bar, except that you feel entitled to stare directly at the performers. The woman doing the ushering reappears with a key card for a room and instruction in an envelope to go there. On stepping out of the lift, which you have coincidentally shared with the couple who were sat opposite you - who are magically staying on the same floor - you are greeted by the sight of the drunk lady from earlier lying flat out in the corridor having apparently fallen and cut herself on a broken glass. The couple help her up and take her off to their room. You enter your room.

It is a promising start. Throughout modern literature and cinema, hotels have gained a [reputation] as the scene for adulterous liaisons and a general atmosphere of slightly sinister mystery (think The Shining or Twin Peaks). Black Tonic trades heavily on both tropes, creating a slightly spooky off-kilter world where nothing is quite as it seems. On entering the room the televsion fizzes into life and a pre-recorded DVD showing snow falling, fluffy clouds and waves begins as a disembodied eastern European chamber maid narrates poetic reminiscences of cleaning hotels and being left by her lover.

Watching TV in a hotel room is less like theatre than one might hope. The video, while competently made, is not as compelling as it could be. Were this a truly interactive experience, surely the audient should be free to flick over to some curious Spanish language MTV channel to watch eighties pop videos for the remainder of the show if they want. As it is, the interactivity (as previously discussed) is very directed. Once the film snaps off, the telephone rings with instructions for you to look out of the hotel door. Another brief vignette takes place and then it's back into the room for more telly.

Granted interactivity in this sort of performance is still in its infancy, with audiences unsure of what they can do, and companies concerned about making everything run smoothly. Once a set of conventions and understandings emerge, this sort of feeling of being quite so railed roaded will no doubt dissipate. If a commotion takes place outside your room it should demand attention, rather than having attention directed to it beforehand. Part of the problem here is that you are unsure of your role in the proceedings. Half-way between observer and participant, it feels like the mechanics of involvement need to be more carefully addressed. The most exciting part of the show takes place when you are invited to root around the room belonging to one of the characters across the hall from your own. It is genuinely unsettling to watch the (fictional) occupant set off down the hallway and 'break into' their room using a spare key card slipped under your door with a note attached.

The main problem with this forty-minute piece, however, is how slight it feels. It half tells a heavily fragmented Lynchian narrative about a professional honey-trapper hired by women to get their swaying partners back by sabotaging subsequent relationships. This is mixed with some rather vague, floaty imagery concerning snowfall and feathers courtesy of the chambermaid who may have been this honey-trap’s client, and, in a scene watched in the reflection on bathroom tiles from behind an almost closed door, may even be this mysterious woman’s double. Granted, forty minutes isn’t very long to set up a scenario and explore it fully, but when you consider what Fawlty Towers manages to achieve in half an hour, in a hotel...

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