Writers: Jack Pepper, Scott Younger and others
London is a city with so much history that around every corner is a story that could be the basis for a play.
That union of location and creativity is the basis for Walking Plays, a location-based mobile app that is launching in London but with plans to expand further. Each of the app’s audio plays is split into chapters, with a chapter being tied to a specific location. When one section has finished, you walk to a position indicated on the map, and the next chapter starts.
While that’s an innovative approach, it does make for some fragmented storytelling, as each play is put on pause while you seek out the next location. If only that were the only problem with this delivery method.
In Jack Pepper’s A Scandal on Fleet Street, we start at the historic Old Bell Tavern at the eastern end of the city street. The audio is set in the middle of the 18th Century, as an MP finds his sexual misadventures have been published in The Tatler – a periodical that mixed satire, gossip and downright fiction from a printers’ studio further down Fleet Street.
The route Pepper takes us on draws us west, past Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub and then through the small courtyards that lie hidden north and south of the street. While extant buildings from the period Pepper has set his play are few and far between, the path layouts have not substantially changed. It is rather enlightening to explore parts of London that one would otherwise never see.
Unfortunately, the play itself is so slow-moving as to be soporific. The opening segment outside the Old Bell Tavern, which features conversations between disgraced MP George and some other drunken revellers, rambles on for 17 minutes. And while some of that run time is taken up with instructions on using the app, there is not enough of interest within Pepper’s dialogue to justify hanging about on a busy pavement for over a quarter of an hour.
As the play moves on, subsequent chapters are shorter but still drag. At each stop, the scene that plays has a small amount of information to impart, wrapped in multiple layers of tedium. The inclusion of some historical context is not exactly subtle, either. The 70-minute play (which, with gaps to allow for movement from place to place, takes over an hour and a half to complete) ends up taking twice the length of an average Radio 4 afternoon drama but has far too little to say in the time.
Rather closer to the potential of what the Walking Plays app can deliver is Scott Younger’s Smoke Diamonds. This route starts at the grand entrance to Smithfield Market, site of a wholesale meat market for centuries.
In Younger’s Dickensian tale, a young man – also called George, but so very different from Pepper’s MP – discovers a diamond necklace that has been secreted inside a pig’s carcass for some reason. When he takes possession of the necklace, he finds himself being pursued by people who have their own reasons for wanting it.
This tale takes the pedestrian listener north, past Farringdon station and around the streets of Clerkenwell. This is an area which has been frequently developed and redeveloped in the years since the story’s setting but, like Pepper’s Fleet Street tale, Younger is successful in finding a walking route through easy-to-miss alleyways that cuts out much of the concrete and glass that fills the area.
Younger’s tale is delivered in short, sharp bursts, meaning that one never lingers too long in one spot. That feels like it supports the Walking Plays ethos far better – the sense of pace justifies a perambulatory approach, and the pauses for dialogue in each place are never begrudged. If anything, some chapters feel a little too short, although that does help keep up the pace as George is running through Clerkenwell to escape the area’s criminal gangs.
But even with the improved sense of pace in this piece, it feels as if the Walking Plays approach has not quite fulfilled its potential. Part of that is technological. Little things like showing users how long each chapter is, or replacing the need for the narrator to interrupt the story to tell you the location of the next checkpoint with text within the app might both help the user and also encourage playwrights to keep their plays tautly structured.
There are also things that the app does get right. While most suitable for individual use, a shared listening feature allows small groups to sync up their audio so that while they each listen on their own device, they are experiencing the plays as a collective audience.
Ultimately, though, Walking Plays is a little too frustrating to be truly enjoyable. It may be that contemporary dramas – shorn of the incongruity of 18th and 19th-century Londoners being presented to us via very 21st-century technology – can harness the role of GPS in geographical storytelling a little better (the app currently has a modern-day romcom available, Romance on the Thames, with more plays planned).
In total, it feels as if the technology is looking around for tales that can be delivered within the framework that has been built. And maybe that’s the problem – for this type of hybrid storytelling to work, it should be the story that drives everything else.
Available at walkingplays.com. Plays are priced at £4.99 each