Having been greeted at the door, we are told we are present at a focus group. We are also asked to stand underneath one of a set of wooden shapes attached to the wall. This is the first of many choices we will be asked to make over the course of the hour. What follows is a whirlwind hour of polling, discussion, debate, satire and improvisation. In a small space, with nothing but two chairs and a projection space on the wall, the audience, standing on two sides, is drawn towards each other immediately, and is a key component to the production. The show maintains a brilliant balance between satire and thought-provoking political commentary, as well as managing to be a unique, immersive experience.
We are told right at the start the show is a ‘phone zone’, and for the first time since I’ve been going to theatre, I am asked to take it out and turn it on. We text a number, and are connected to a poll. Throughout the show we are asked to answer questions via text, and the results instantly come up on the projector screen as poll results, with performance directions being dictated by these results.
To start with, Matthew (Matthew Flacks) introduces the polling system and plays the role of compere, informing us that we are going to help him create the ideal parliamentary candidate through what we want to see in our representatives. He introduces, Omar (Omar Ibrahim), the other performer, who briefly provides a snapshot of five possible types of candidate we might want to vote for. These personas are based on particular voting groups.
We enter a debate with Matthew feeding Omar questions before opening this up to the floor. Omar is ostentatiously trying to find his feet, and is bombastic in his rhetoric, but in such a way that it is obvious that it is satire of a stereotypically over-the-top politician. This has the effect of relaxing the audience, with the ability to laugh established early on. As the debate is opened up to the floor, issues such as the legalisation of marijuana and immigration are raised. Omar’s ability to improvise within the character just given to him was fantastic, and he was able to maintain a subtle balance to produce parody of a stern politician flouting rhetoric, and answering the questions seriously enough to perpetuate the discussion. Following a couple of further polls concerning Omar’s responses to questions, the production is pushed forward by a development in character.
Matthew becomes Omar’s campaign officer and attacks him repeatedly for not being friendly enough, not approachable enough, and not presenting himself in the correct manner. This is done again in a well-balanced way. He appears like a caricature, using somewhat Malcolm Tucker-esque expressions, but also serious and devious enough to reflect what spin doctors are like. He tries to coach Omar in how to approach people, often interrupting him with tips – ‘soften the eyes’ – and then asking us to respond to how he is doing things, making us think about the effect of appearance throughout a political campaign.
Throughout this, interesting questions are raised from the floor, and Omar is constantly attempting to appear different to how people perceive politicians today to be like. Parties are not mentioned, and mostly addressing questions on policy, it manages to maintain a relevant, topical discussion while maintaining a strong thread of political satire. We are laughing throughout the hour, and this allows us to be involved throughout, take on a common identity but also recognise it as a serious issue we are dealing with.
The final twist at the end, presents Omar, struggling to survive audience-created scandal (we all text our ideas in) – a prostitute from Chris Brown’s entourage threw an egg at him and hit him in the face – as he turns on his spin doctor. He demands that the audience do something about the system and change the way that things work because parliament is controlled by these spin doctors, and not the candidates themselves who are taught to represent something that we want and not who they are. In many contexts this could be preachy, but is done with tact, and humour.
Throughout the play, there are parodies and tongue in cheek comments on politicians, polls, theatre audiences and performers, spin doctors and political debate. The levels of satire are, at times, complex, and may go over the head of someone who is very apathetic about politics or has become disenfranchised. However, throughout there is a great balance between provoking thought, and subtle satire is kept. The large majority of the audience remained relaxed and engaged. I would say that to really get the most out of it, it would help to be interested in politics, but I feel that anyone with views on how the country is run will find it both funny and engaging, without it ever feeling patronising or intimidating.
The Candidate is playing Theatre Delicatessen until 16 May. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre Delicatessen website.