They say that a good chunk of the symptoms experienced as part of a hangover are attributable to sleep deprivation and dehydration (the other part is because you were offered something suspicious brewed by monks in Devon). And this is easy to believe if you have ever experienced a prolonged absence of sleep for reasons other than too much wine. The seasick-like nausea, the short-term memory loss, the interference with your balance are all there, but not because you are over the limit, only that you haven’t slept – and as a knock-on effect often haven’t drank enough water over the last 24hours either. You’re jittery, you see things move out the corner of your eye, hear noises and become convinced something bad is just about to happen: there is an intruder poised with a gun just outside the bathroom door and…and…and, oh, it’s actually just the bloody cat wanting dinner.
Black Tonic is a production about the effects of sleep deprivation, as experienced by shift workers, the jetlagged and the totally blind for whom being unable to respond to changing light patterns can cause long-term problems. It is also a play set in a hotel and performed on repeat to audiences of four people at a time who are led around the building and told the story through witnessing events between other ‘guests’, watching CCTV footage and having the chance to ransack a room where, in amongst the bunched tights and sleeping pills, lies the answer to the mystery.
Beyond that description I feel duty bound to write no more about the actual unveiling of events. This is a show where knowing what takes place or the outcome would severely compromise the experience of taking part in it. Additionally, each time it is performed, the exact narrative plays out slightly differently (or so I would assume) based on the answers of the audience members who are talked to throughout the performance, calling on virtuoso improv skills from the cast.
The Bristol leg of the company’s tour is set in the Grand Hotel, sandwiched between the registry office and a multi-storey. As with Jo Bannon’s Mayfest 2015 re-staging of Deadline at the Bristol Marriot, the beauty of this staging is reliant on hotels being the true owners of the phrase ‘the truth is always stranger than fiction’. For in amongst the movements of the cast members, there is the general hubbub of the hotel itself and, at times, it is genuinely impossible to tell what is real and what is not. For instance at one point we all get in a lift with a waiter carrying a 12inch margarita pizza under an ill-fitting and ridiculously grand silver cloche. This seems like such a stupid thing to serve on platter under a ‘dinner is served, m’lord’ dome that I assume it’s part of the play. Only it’s not, that was actually someone’s room service. At another point we head to the basement and out of the lift come crashing a group of sweary guests, completely in line with other events already taken place in the performance. But once again they are real guests, at the hotel, falling out of a lift swearing.
The building itself is a masterpiece of faded glory, an aspic-frozen time capsule of phallic arum lilies in single glasses and bulging leather sofas punctured with round black buttons. It is the kind of hotel that has sisters dotted along the entire south coast, just waiting to welcome party conferences and Sunday lunchers in search of thick gravy and green bullet peas. Reading the travel pages of Vogue I am often hit by what a great job that must be to get to go to the Maldives or Shanghai and stay in the world’s truly best hotels. But there’s a part of me that would like instead to be the official reviewer for hotels with a heyday in the reign of Queen Victoria that still maintain this (slightly tarnished) glamour. Hotels with names like The Britannica or The Royal Albion which will give you marmalade in small packages for breakfast rather than a long glass of chia seed pudding.
In some respects, there is nothing new about the format of the show in that it bares a lot of similarities to the old fashioned Murder Mystery at Doctor Akroyd’s events certain people like to attend. But Black Tonic is more than bank holiday entertainment on the Torbay Express, it is a maverick example of subtly subversive theatre continually unsettling the audience without recourse to hyperbolic shock tactics or patronising political rhetoric. As with one conclusion to the narrative, Black Tonic prove that to affect change you don’t necessarily need to invent something new, you just need to exploit the existing cracks and then sit back to watch events unfold.