Brighton Festival 2010
Best Before is a new take on interactive theatre – given a games controller you are more than just interacting – the audience make the show what it is.
The technology behind this show must be a production manager’s nightmare – yards and yards of cabling weaving its way underneath theatre seats to wire up at least 200 games controllers – all of which will be used by individual audience members who will no doubt spend their time yanking them or dropping them on the floor. Frankly it’s a miracle the show worked at all, but work it did, and very well at that.
The structure of the show is such that the stories of some real people (seemingly the true life stories of the performers) are interspersed with on-screen game playing, as the audience members are each provided with an individual avatar (at first a two tone blob) which they have the ability to control with their handsets. The audience are introduced to people who have worked in the games industry and give some insight into the less than glamorous world of game testing. It is a nice juxtaposition to have the unpleasantness and hypocrisy of the modern games industry exposed at the same time the audience are becoming immersed in their own fantasy world.
So, in Best Land (the simulated environment in which our avatars reside,) the choices you make when you are young can have impact on your future self. Some cunning computer programming records every decision you make, and beware, they may come back to haunt you! It is thought provoking to be confronted with this reality – how can someone who chose to be without compassion take on a caring profession in later life? What happens when you want to run for president but your teenage drinking and drug taking are displayed on the wall for all to see? All these are the dilemmas you face in Best Land along with many more. It was fascinating to see the choices made by others as well – the deadpan cast were controlling the game and frequently joked about how ‘this Brighton audience weren’t living up to their city’s liberal reputation.’
Obviously, as we were constantly reminded by the onstage team, this was just a game taking place in a theatre at Brighton Festival, and in that sense it didn’t accurately represent a cross-section of Brighton society, or the decisions people would really make about whether to have an army, or an abortion or to gamble. However, it was a very nice way of simplifying life, and asking the questions individuals and society face, whilst giving people the chance to explore the consequences of their actions. You could, as my partner did, try your hardest to ‘break the game’ losing all your money, never getting a job and having as many divorces as possible. Or you could try to make the choices which ensure prosperity – studying when young, marrying upwards, choosing a sensible job. Your success is measured by the size of your avatar – the more Bestos (game money) you have, the larger you are. By the end I was pretty big with several kids and my partner as small as he could get – I was only sorry that you didn’t get to see your accumulated wealth (or lack of!) flash above your head at the end of the game.
Best Before is not the most insightful and exposing way to examine society, as little depth or truth can be achieved. However, it is certainly very entertaining – I found myself totally immersed in the show, and was genuinely surprised that two hours had passed when I came out of the theatre. At its heart, this show is a very interesting and clever concept which is delivered with masterful use of technology.