Department Story, Belfast International Arts Festival – Royal Avenue Department Store, Belfast

Reviewer: Sarah Hoover

Created by: Jack Hardiker and Zoe Seaton

Over the last two years serious artistic consideration has been given to the disappearance of brick-and-mortar shopping, and also to the way online visual communications counterpoint the mediation of distance with the intimacy of a close-up viewed in your home. In Department Story, legendary immersive and participatory theatre-makers Big Telly weave these two conversations together, with results that highlight the way controlling an audience’s interaction with a performance is in tension with providing a fulfilling, cohesive experience.

Big Telly’s usual energetic, over-the-top style makes them the best possible choice if you want to produce immersive storytelling combined with a unique online interface featuring multiple user-controlled views, interactive chat, and the opportunity to make lightning happen in the venue. Because its narratives, created by local writers Cathy Carson, Jan Carson and Roisin O’Donnell, are already loosely linked and performed in several (physical) spaces, Department Story leans on that energy to keep the audience engaged. This is especially necessary in the online space in which viewers can quickly move away from a scene if they lose interest. The 75-minute performance settles into several emotional scenes, however, and unpredictable plot twists lead from classic fairytales like Niamh McGrath’s elaborate version of the Red Shoes to an increasingly sinister look at a loveless marriage as demonstrated through furniture.

I attended the online version through AFEW’s Remote Control system, which gestures toward a security office interface and offers online chat and selectable camera views, including several with multiple views available. Throughout the first section, viewers can use these multiple views to see and hear fragmented pieces of many scenes or follow a single story. If you do attend online, don’t neglect the calming but eerie lighting and soundscape in the camping room (soundscapes throughout by Garth McConaghie, Chris Robinson performing in the space). After the multi-channel intro, it becomes less attractive to switch views and instead I preferred a two-camera screen that simultaneously provided a wide shot and a close-up of the action. This is where one of Big Telly’s innovations is a necessary advance on the static set of wide-shot cameras so often used in live-streaming: the Personal Shopper (Declan King) handheld view, complete with its direct-to-camera plotline reminiscent of vlog tours, provides an intimate interaction not available to the physical audience. Paired with Personal Shopper chat interaction this becomes an additional dimension of community-building that helps assuage the FOMO of blended delivery.

Another attempt to provide a sense of online community, an effects control panel, may have backfired slightly. Effects like ‘nighttime’, ‘flicker’, ‘mannequin’ and ‘blizzard’ are locked for most of the performance so that they do not interrupt the carefully curated action, directed by Zoe Seaton, and the complex technical wizardry of Jack Hardiker. It is easy to see when the online audience loses focus on the storytelling because the chat window fills with speculation on when we get to use these and what they do. Unfortunately, they have little actual effect on the narrative or aesthetic (except once in the Personal Shopper narrative) and at this stage in their artistic development they feel largely like an afterthought. These are tools at the beginning of their potential, however, and as they are technically and artistically expanded there are tremendous possibilities for new theatrical experience. Similarly, there are noticeable difficulties in providing lighting and sound that simultaneously give a coherent aesthetic to a physically-present audience and another to an online one – not least that the variety of equipment mediating the performance is only partly under the control of the company.

Overall, Big Telly delivers what we have come to expect: innovation, energy, and fun, and they do it in a way that explores and expands hybrid theatre development. It’s an exciting time to be shopping!

Runs Until 31 October 2021.

The Reviews Hub Score


The Reviews Hub - Ireland

The Ireland team is currently under the editorship of Laura Marriott. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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