Brighton Fringe 2014
John Robertson has created something of a masterpiece with this unique interactive comedy experience. Taking influence from the text-based adventure games of the eighties and early nineties, each player attempts to conquer this mythical world by selecting one of up to four options at each stage. When one player dies, the next awakens to find themselves in a dark room, and the journey begins again.
The show begins with the lights on, and Robertson bounds to the stage with charisma and endless energy. Introducing the audience to the “prizes” on offer tonight (a broken meat grinder, wooden duck, carp fishing DVD, a box containing “possibly meat”, and so on), with his wide eyes and boundless enthusiasm, you would be forgiven for thinking that you were watching a young Rik Mayall if it wasn’t for his Australian accent. Calling on his partner and technician, JoJo, to turn off the lights, the room is plunged into darkness. A reading light illuminates Robertson’s face and upon the projection screen we see the opening screen for the first of tonight’s games. In the centre of the screen is the time remaining, and in each corner is a simple text-based game option, and a colour. The player must state the option and the colour they wish to play. This in turn leads them to another screen, with up to four further options, and the game continues in this vein until the player wins or (most likely) dies.
The production values are excellent. Robertson controls the game from an X-Box controller strapped to a harness, and provides a commentary throughout the show. Not an easy task, given that several of the options turn up in different places with a different outcome each time, yet Robertson knows this game inside and out and his commentaries are both revealing and hilarious. With the lights off and only the gamesmaster’s head illuminated, Robertson adopts a much more commanding voice, reminiscent of Richard O’Brien in the Crystal Maze. Having spent some time getting to know the audience demographic at the start of the show, much of the interaction is made up of a personal, yet good-natured, banter.
The venue is perfect for this show, as the intimate space allows the performer to engage fully with the audience, while also creating the perfect “dark room”.
The quality of the writing echoes the genre magnificently. Each time a player dies and a new game starts, the audience joins in with the call of “You awake to find yourself in a dark room”. Robertson tells us that only two people have ever completed the game, one of whom had attended the show fourteen times, while the other had attended alongside him for thirteen of those. It’s clear that this game has been well thought out, and as player after player fell by the wayside it was easy to see how this could become an addictive experience. For fear of spoiling the show I have refrained from revealing the content of the game options, but much of the fun came from watching each player make the same mistakes over and over again, while Robertson poked fun at them for doing so. As well as providing a range of hilarious game options, this is a performer who is capable of responding to players and audience members with wit and charm. The audience could feel that he was in control, but that was never used in a threatening or condescending manner, as would have been so easy to do.
The final round was the “democracy round”, whereby the whole audience was encouraged to call out the options that they wanted to follow. This soon descended into a free-for-all, and as Robertson himself stated: “Like a true democracy, only those of you that shout loudest will be heard.” Needless to say, this game also ended in swift defeat.
The show might be improved slightly if Robertson had been in character as the gamesmaster from the moment that the audience entered the room. Although the introduction was amusing, it may have been more satisfactory for the audience to have been immersed in the experience from the moment we entered to the moment we left. After the game had ended Robertson also treated us to a song about Stalin, which seemed a little obscure and had nothing to do with the Dark Room.
That said, it would be extremely harsh to criticise such a charming and charismatic performance, especially one which left the audience bent double with laughter for long periods. Just ten minutes into the show I had to straighten my mouth as my jaw was aching so much from laughing. The audience consisted of people aged 14 to 50 (to quote the occasionally sweary Robertson: (“The Fringe put this in the children’s section. That was nothing to do with me!”), and from my seat at the back of the room, I could see every single one of them laughing with the same intensity as I.
A truly outstanding show, both in terms of its unique concept and wonderful execution.