It’s kind of like watching TV. Or someone else playing a video game. But it’s live, there, in front of you. Mike Bartlett has a reputation for doing just that – creating plays that challenge the conventions of theatrical experience. Game, at the Almeida, certainly achieves that.
Black blinds come up on the stage space from your little section of the audience – one of four arranged around the set – each invisible to the others. We listen in with headphones, as sing-song gaming music plays on repeat. Somewhere behind the polka dot wallpaper are the other segments of the audience, watching. There are little screens too, in the audience space, showing surveillance footage of the space.
So you can see all around this quite standard, modern home. It’s got a nice clean kitchen. It feels very IKEA. And a bit like watching Big Brother or playing The Sims. The young couple living there – played by Mike Noble and Jodie McNee – go about their normal daily business – making dinner, making love. They have cornflakes and microwave dinners.
We soon discover, though, that this is a corporate home, whose inhabitants allow themselves to be shot with tranquilliser darts for public amusement. It’s a rich person’s game. And it is sold as the ultimate experience – get a buzz from shooting real life people in their real life home. Watch them squirm. The person who’s been shot passes out for a bit, wakes up and gets on with things as though nothing were amiss.
The apparent catalyst for this last resort is the housing crisis – but that fact, so clearly stated in the marketing, lacks emphasis in the production. In fact, when the couple eventually allow their little son to also be shot at, there seems to be no reasonable justification behind their staying. Even if, as Carly (McNee) tells her partner, they haven’t done very well in life. They just didn’t seem quite that desperate.
Game struggles to find any narrative harmony or drive after a slightly more dynamic opening. It lacks character history to establish sympathy for the couple we voyeuristically peer at. Their son, who is driven to hiding in a cardboard box, is oddly voiceless and unaccessible. The high-class ‘experience’ of shooting people also seemed underdeveloped – why weren’t there tours, a narrative, additional extras, some kind of obsequious glamour? And the apparent villain of the piece – who owns the enterprise – wasn’t very nasty.
The concept of Game is intriguing and fearful – a moralistic story about technology and human evil. At what point do we feel uncomfortable being entertained by others’ despair? The technical team has pulled off a complex soundscape and film elements with quite astounding accuracy. But it lacks engaging, emotional storytelling. If you’re expecting something as biting as Bull or exceptional as King Charles III, I would reconsider.
Game is playing at Almeida Theatre until 4 April. For more information and tickets, see the Almeida Theatre website.