Walking through the back entrance of Theatre Delicatessen’s venue in Farringdon, we get our tickets and programmes by the door, followed by clear instructions to charge our phones because we will need them throughout the performance. An audience member behind me cannot help himself and asks: “Wait, you want us to keep our phones on?”
Considering the theatre’s constant battle against ringtones, sneaky pictures and other annoying features of phones that can cause a disturbance during a performance, keeping them on really is an unusual request; then again, nothing about Shelter me is usual. Devised and created by performers Aislinn Mulligan, Helena Reynolds, Pablo Meneu, Nich Galzin and Ellie Rose Rusbridge, this performance is an immersive circus show that has many creative and fresh elements. After checking our bags we are instructed to text a number, and the fun begins. While we are waiting for the performance to start in an area that is colourful, heartwarming and has a quite childish atmosphere, we are constantly encouraged to engage with each other. The performers ask us to draw, sing and socialise, instantly creating a very personal and intimate feeling.
Throughout the performance we get instructions and information through text, and simultaneously we are able to talk to our ‘buddies’ who are other audience members. I was very surprised how comfortable I became with this person whom I’ve never seen before. As we roam from room to room, the sounds of texts arriving add to the mysterious and often eerie atmosphere of the show. Most of the rooms are very creative and quite beautiful, but some places get too crowded which results in technical difficulties and nervous actors who are eager to move the show along. Nevertheless, the circus elements are truly mesmerising, and thanks to the form we can get closer than ever to the performers. The tension, excitement and danger are highlighted by the incoming mysterious texts. Perhaps the genius of this is that because we are allowed to look at our phones, we aren’t that tempted to do so. In a very ironic way, I couldn’t take my eyes off the performance, causing me to ignore my phone, not the other way round.
Although I deliberately wanted to avoid comparing this show to The Drowned Man, the form, execution and feel of Shelter Me does remind me of Punchdrunk’s production. And while Circumference’s aesthetic and attention to detail are not quite there yet, the charismatic performers of Shelter me manage to form a connection with their audience that Punchdrunk failed to accomplish. Instead of feeling lost, clueless and even a little vulnerable, the performers’ candidness, genuine friendliness and sense of humour make us feel welcomed and engaged. I was happy to see the lighter tones in this show because it proved that theatre doesn’t always have to be dark, mysterious and brooding, and it showed the immersive form’s potential for playfulness.
There are many shows about the disconnecting quality of technology – yet I am not even sure that’s what Shelter me is about. The idea of getting the narrative through texts is very clever, yet after the first few sequences we don’t get many more texts, which makes the theme of technology inconsistent. Apart from a couple of monologues and texting performers, the show barely refers to it again, which makes the core of the play unclear.
However, by the end of the show you don’t even need to look at your phone as the breathtaking finale wraps up the performance on the top of the building against the bright London skyline. Paired up with our buddies, we are invited to sing together the song we learned at the beginning of the show, and for a moment we are an ensemble, not strangers. Circumference manages this very smoothly, without you noticing, which made me think that Shelter me isn’t really about technology – it is about trust. Just like an acrobat trusts their partner on the trapeze, we trust our unknown buddy by texting them, we trust a roomful of strangers as we leave our phones on the chargers, and Shelter me trusts us that we are eager to play and able to sing together.
Shelter Me is playing at Theatre Delicatessen until 5 July. For tickets and more information, see the Theatre Delicatessen website.