Writer: Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari with Abgail Conway
Reviwer: Dave Cunningham
Although the degree may differ parties and theatre are both social events at which people interact. In Party Skills for the End of the World, creators Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari, along with designer Abgail Conway, set out to demolish the imaginary wall between audience and performers. This is a full immersive event during which the ten members of the cast mingle unnoticed with the audience and patrons get to play a very active role in the proceedings.
Like all good parties, this one begins with alcohol. Prior to the start of the party the audience is given a lesson in how to mix a martini. This is the first of many skills that patrons will get the chance to acquire –some of them silly (‘How to play a record’), others practical (‘How to dance’) while others have a sinister undertone. Appropriately, considering the educational aspects of the event, it is held in the Centenary Building on Salford’s University Campus in which ad hoc classrooms have been set up through which patrons circulate to learn new skills. But there is a degree of urgency underlying the lessons, as the flickering lights in the building, objects thrown against the windows and Ben and Max Ringham’s apocalyptic sound compositions suggest the world may well be coming to an end.
There is no skimping on the lessons – you really do get the chance to learn how to tie knots or manufacture herbal style remedies from unlikely materials. There is the disturbing juxtaposition between learning the correct way to fold a napkin in one room and how to build a makeshift gasmask in the next. A final speech has extra significance if you notice that it comprises contributions made by patrons in response to the instructions on how to write a speech.
Although audience participation is high, it is not spontaneous. The rule of thumb with immersive theatre is that you only get out what you are prepared to put in. But with Party Skills for the End of the World, the audience is responsive rather than active. The events are highly organised to the extent there is little room for individual contributions. There is an educational feel so that the participation is one-sided – the audience follows instructions in a passive manner.
The group nature of the party makes it hard for individuals to suspend disbelief which limits the impact. A lone participant might find the sudden emergency that sends patrons scurrying through the darkened corridors and stairways to be frightening. Being a member of a group, however, reduces any such anxiety to the point that the process feels more like a game than an actual emergency. The events become interesting rather than engaging – it is hard to feel the compelling urgency that comes from being under threat.
Party Skills for the End of the World works best when making surprising connections and confounding expectations. A lesson in how to stitch peel back onto an orange starts off surreal and becomes disturbing upon learning that the same method is used to treat flesh wounds. The need to avoid rushing to judgement is emphasised when the source of threatening noises turns out to be a band comprising Graham Sowerby and David Morgan setting up for a disco.
Despite the high level of audience involvement, the tightly organised atmosphere of Party Skills for the End of the World limits the extent to which the show can be said to be completely interactive making for an enjoyable but not entirely compelling party.
Runs until 16th July 2017 | Image: Donald Christie