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Any lonely soul embarking on the dating apps knows what a bleak world it can be (especially if men feature in your preferences). But, as well as the odd dopamine hit, some satisfaction can be gained from the performance of these online personas and the various ways we try to sell (or mask) ourselves.
‘Manimals’, according to actor and game producer, Michelle Hudson, are those familiar guys seen posing with exotic animals in their dating profiles in a desperate attempt to stand out and attract a mate. In a creative response to her own experiences, Michelle, in collaboration with game dramaturg Amy Strike and director Flo O’Mahony, invites audiences to an immersive Zoom show, framed as the launch workshop for new dating app, Manimals.
The show relies heavily on brave and vulnerable participation from the audience, and leans therefore on a lot of support from our host and a strong internal structure. Whether helping Michelle get ready like an animated game character, taking her on a date, or giving her earnest life advice, participants are eased into these high-stakes interactions with clear instructions and ample light encouragement.
The app itself, produced by Canadian studio, Stitch Media, is a fun and committed gimmick. Spectators make a simple profile before the show, and are later signalled to swipe through the witty game, responding to prompts and dares in order to gain points. The second time the app comes to life, though, splits the audience’s attention a little too far, diluting some deeply personal and quite dark moments playing out live towards the end.
Calls from a disgruntled boss, some bad app reviews and an interruption from a coalition of Michelle’s sour ex’s (a couple of animal puppets, no less), are all disastrous ingredients towards the failure of this doomed workshop. The Black Mirror-esque breakdown of the game and its host play out in a moral critique of how we lose ourselves to these disposable, pixelated personalities of our own creation. As Michelle’s tragic pursuit of love and passion culminates in a pretty explicit scene with her purchase from InvisibleBoyfriend.com (for the love of god, bring headphones if you share your home), identifiable themes of loneliness and desperation erupt with an absurd vulnerability.
This really is a multimedia show – and it largely balances out. A couple of musical interludes, created in collaboration with composer Mark Aspinall, make for an accessible, comedic glimpse into Michelle’s dating history through her colourful mind. This also, at times, gives way to pre-recorded videos, where the playful and crafty performance artistry of the show really has a chance to soar.
The slick technical feats of Manimals, developed alongside creative technician Chloe Mashiter, are highly ambitious and yet absolutely spot-on – multiple cameras and a gutsy live encounter with Chat Roulette are handled with well-rehearsed precision. But it feels, at times, as if the content is left to suffer in aid of technical prowess. Some scenes feel sparse and underdeveloped, while other narrative threads (like the corporate app launch) are lost a little too soon.
At the end, as we’re sent into our final breakout rooms with “no rules” and only our own reflective eyes staring back, I feel somewhat freed from the performative game of judgement so often felt when swiping through dating apps. Asking viewers to re-evaluate from where and whom they seek to fulfill their animal desires, Manimals swipes some welcome organised chaos over the deary screens of online dating.
Manimals plays online via Greenwich Theatre until 14th February. For more information, see Greenwich Theatre’s Website.