Brilliant yet highly traumatic, Balloon Theatre’s The Rules of Inflation is a fantastically immersive piece of theatre that unnerved me nearly to the point of tears.

Set out as a children’s birthday party, complete with balloons, streamers and party bags, as an audience we are included before the play has even begun. Pulled into the stage area by the actors themselves, we are then sat down while Pink (Bj McNeill), Yellow (Bryony Cole), Green (Emily Sitch) and Blue (Nastazja Somers) chat with us as they encourage us to ‘vote’ for them in the upcoming election that will take place in the play. This instantaneous involvement – coupled with the intimacy of the space – really made me feel a part of the piece, which served to increase my discomfort as the play progressed.

However, this easy-going, innocent environment evaporates as soon as Clown (Joshua Webb) emerges from a large jack-in-the-box in the centre of the stage. On the wall, there are a set of rules, which include “Sharing is caring” and “Always listen to the clown”. The eerie juxtaposition of these rules sets the tone for the rest of the piece. Working excellently as an ensemble, the clown decides which ‘party’ games they play and forces them to participate without choice. Games such as musical chairs and pass the parcel may look innocent on the surface, but eventually descend into Blue, Green, Yellow and Pink’s sexual and physical abuse at the hands of Clown. Their use of balloons is particularly visionary – both as a prop of fun and as a tool of perversion – highlighting further the horrible flip-side to the piece. Though as a group the four colours try to hide their discomfort at what the Clown makes them do, they nervously smile and gaze at audience members as if for help. At one point Green made eye contact with me, and I desperately wanted to help her. As individuals, I could see each of the colours’ different vulnerabilities portrayed in their reactions – it is what they don’t say that makes all the impact.

Yet these party games are all a metaphor for contemporary politics. When it is time for the ‘election’, all the audience members are given a vote. Clown counts the votes and whoever wins (on this occasion, Pink), stands on a make-shift podium and recites a speech written down on a phone, which Clown hands to him. Echoing infamous politicians such as Trump with ideas of “building a wall”, Clown stands next to the winner, at times mouthing the words. Here the play’s message becomes evident: it doesn’t matter who winsas the outcome will be identical – Clown is the leader regardless. The political connotations are unbounded: are world leaders really just a figurehead for a bigger machine? Are we as a society brainwashed by a power that isn’t visible to the public?

A special mention must of course go to Joshua Webb, who is haunting as Clown. Able to turn his mood from all smiles to total evil in the blink of an eye, I was totally terrified. I’ve been scared of clowns since infancy and he did little to dissipate the stereotype. His moods dominate the sound and lighting – when he grows angry at the colours, a lightbulb in the middle of the ceiling flickers, the children’s music dissolving into off-key, jarring notes that send shivers down your spine.

Overall, this play is fantastically terrifying. Never have I left a theatre more swiftly after a performance, and never has a play had a more lasting and profound effect.

The Rules of Inflation is playing at Theatre N16 until 24 March. For more information, see the Theatre N16 website.