I'd seen Beyond the Pale
advertised on Southwark Playhouse's website a while back, but I noticed the bit about the audience influencing events and had horrible flashbacks to the last time this venue promised something similar
so I steered well clear. Ian
, however, is either braver or more foolhardy, and after seeing the show strongly recommended it. It was still a risk though - Ian's reviews and mine often agree down to tiny details, but our tastes sometimes differ hugely as well. Besides which, this was a promenade production, set in a dystopian alternate world, performed and set in railway tunnels under a major London station. Sound terrifyingly familar?
Luckily I ended up agreeing with Ian, and where Your Nation Loves You
took an exciting venue and then had no idea what to do with it, Beyond the Pale
is full of invention and strong performances.
In this alternative universe, most of London is as we know it, but Southwark (or South Wark as it's renamed here) had descended into crime and chaos to such an extent that for the last 20 years it's been walled off, its residents needing a day pass even to visit other parts of the city. The audience are designated as volunteers in the South Wark Rescue Centre and divided into Family, Youth or Rehabilitation workers (I was in the latter group.) After going to the main auditorium to watch scenes introducing the characters, we split off around the building and were semi-participants in various smaller scenes; some unique to each group, some clearly repeated for everyone to catch up with. As for the audience being involved in the way the story goes, well yes and no. The show's designed for us to pitch in with questions and concerns, and sometimes choose a course of action. As the stories have to come together at some point though, and the three groups may not all have the same reactions, there's a limit to how far this goes - in one scene my group decided to turn down someone's request to adopt; as it turns out this would have derailed the story so we were later told in passing that our decision had been overturned. Unlike certain shows I could mention though, here a great deal of effort has been put in by deviser/directors Jamie Harper and Andrew Pawlby as well as their actors, to actually make this interaction feel
genuine, even if there are escape routes built into the play for when we don't behave as we're supposed to.
I mentioned adoption, which forms a major part of the story, and overall the themes are of politicians abandoning the vulnerable, and big business "helping" them but with their own agenda, but really the theme has to be theatre itself, as everyone involved throws themselves into this with no half-measures. As a story the cracks often show (I didn't feel a consistent tone around what South Wark was meant to be like; in the Rescue Centre it feels like a post-apocalyptic chaos of drugs and crime, whereas when we get a peek into a local resident's house the scene plays out a bit more Eastenders
) but when you're telling the story in such a well thought-out way that manages not to matter.
One other little point I really want to praise, and that's the gay characters. Because this is not, in any way shape or form, a "gay play," but it has something that we don't see enough of in theatre, and hardly see at all in films and TV: A central character, Centre Manager John (Ciaran McConville - I was glad I picked the "Rehab" group as we got to keep him to ourselves for quite a lot of the show, and as well as a terrific performance his scruffy, twinkle-eyed charm had me bordering on a swoon by the end) who is gay, and it is in no way shape or form relevant to the plot. His work is negatively affecting his home life, a relationship that could have been portrayed exactly the same way with a woman, but the choice was made during the show's conception to make his partner a man. It sounds like nothing, but it's so refreshing not to just hear cliches about characters whose sexuality is irrelevant, and actually see it put into practice.Beyond the Pale (One Man's Meat is Another Man's Poison)
by Jamie Harper and Andrew Pawlby is booking until the 17th of April at Southwark Playhouse.