It’s easy to be cynical when discussing LARP (Live Action Role-Play). Usually associated with Game of Thrones obsessed university students or folk reenacting the battle of Waterloo just off the M1, for some reason we poke fun at those who are simply playing make believe, yet reward actors with golden statues for doing this for a living. The irony hasn’t escaped Hobo Theatre, with their latest show The Lowland Clearances (part of “Whose London Is It Anyway?” at Camden People’s Theatre), exploring the housing crisis through your own Victorian game of pretend.
Asking your audience members to essentially write the show themselves seems a little bit cheap, but this four hour experience is specifically designed for you to play in your own little world, organised by Hobo member Jamie Harper and created by the group as a whole. Brilliantly, almost purposefully ridiculous, the afternoon takes place in a cramped, cold cellar, where houses are chairs with IKEA bags on (that you get to build yourself) and a canal is a set of toilet paper tubes. Crucial to the purpose of The Lowland Clearances is a decision that you make right at the start – without spoiling what this is, such a simple and throwaway moment will actually play a huge part of how you play your game. Based on your decision you will find yourselves segregated into different areas of the room, each neighbourhood with its own set of wealth and social standing. Cramped in a small corner of the room are the most people, all with houses from cardboard boxes, whilst half the room is saved for only four, with luxury items such as rugs and blankets. You can imagine the dynamic this creates, and it plays out over the entire game.
The moment just crying out to be sneered at is when it’s time to choose your character. Those of us looking for escapism from our morbid lives could throw ourselves in, paint a picture of a human being we wish to live as for a hour or two, detail every inch of our backstory. But no, Harper almost subliminally forces you to keep it simple. Choose a job, choose a name, decide upon your family but leave it there. This will become so beneficial down the line, but also heightens Harper’s expertise in his role – he’ll get you to do what he wants, but never seem like he’s instigating you, his soft Scottish lilt lulling you into a false state of mind.
The first half of the session involves you creating the world around you, the London streets, the social gathering spots, the local amenities. Trivial yes, but once your story starts you’ll be glad you did it. It is your goal to ensure the Borough of the Capital runs smoothly, that your fellow residents are sufficiently housed, and that there is constant flow of income throughout the city. Imagine a real life version of Sim City meets Oliver Twist and you’ll come somewhere close. This all sounds rather complicated but such is the beauty of imagination that Harper, who leads the story as a spiritual narrator, only has to offer certain possibilities to you and see what happens. Looking back, I’m still slightly staggered that a group of strangers got together, pretended to build a sanitation plant and argued over the location of a new school. It got quite dark too, some people sent death threats. Oh, and that London housing crisis The Lowland Clearances is supposed to be about? Never mentioned once. It’s the best that theatre can be – presenting you with a story that allows you to draw your own parallels, not have them force fed to you.
As with any type of format that requires such stringent participation, you will only get out of this what you put in. If you’re the type to sit on the sidelines and observe (an offer that is extended to you by Harper if you feel uncomfortable), you’re going to see around 20 people in a box room, all complaining that the local Maplin box is going out of business. It’s going to look stupid, and on the few occasions that you do understandably break character, you do spot it. But these occasions are few and far between, and if you really go for it, let me assure you you’re going to have not only a unique experience but a really entertaining one as well. The moment the game comes to an end there is a genuine sense of sadness, I’m not joking.
This is a genuinely surprising, very effective piece of work. Hobo Theatre are onto something here, and if they keep pushing then expect to see more from them in the future. The Lowland Clearances has to be one of the more interesting productions I’ve seen, but one that’s well worth seeking out. It’s going to take a precious afternoon to do it, and places are limited so do make sure you book ahead. For a LARP virgin, I had a great time.
The Lowland Clearances is playing Camden People’s Theatre every Saturday and Sunday until 31 January. For more information and tickets, see the Camden’s People Theatre website.