After agreeing to review Is Now A Good Time? I was devastated to discover that the piece is conducted over the phone, because the best thing about attending the theatre in the before time was that I was forbidden from looking at my phone, and all I have done for the last forever is look at my phone. But then I realised that because the piece is conducted over the phone, I wouldn’t be able to look at my phone during the performance, which replicates the most enjoyable condition of IRL theatre attendance, with the newfound benefit of no enforced trousers. 5 stars.
Since my office went remote, I haven’t exactly been at the forefront of the campaign to bring back shlepping into work. No matter how dramatically my flight or fight adrenaline kicks in when asked to speak on the Monday morning teams call, it’s still better than the alternative. Somehow, with Is Now A Good Time? Out of Chaos have achieved the inconceivable feat of putting together a convincing case for being in the office, by giving their audience the chance to be in The Office: targeting the aspirational heart of the sitcom, I am dropped into the midst of a workplace romance. Sam (Laura Mugridge) and Adam (Rhys Rusbatch) are two sweet, stifled colleagues at a market research call centre who begin to notice that there’s a maybe-this-could-be-something developing between them.
Over four phone calls, in which I am ostensibly taking part in an hour-long consumer survey for the chance to win a prize even the producers of Bullseye would have been ashamed of, I’m fed titbits of their simmering relationship and allowed gentle interactivity with them. Turns out that theatre really can put you in the shoes of those you despise, because when offered the chance, I begin meddling in the lives of others with the ferociousness of an overbearing colleague wise in the art of love. It’s alarming how effective Sam and Adam’s romance works as a piece of pro-WFW propaganda – the tea break connections, the stairwell confessions, those little moments of spontaneous getting on that are lost when your office becomes the other side of your bed. Any forward-thinking, commute-loving boss should immediately implement a post-pandemic Love For Introverts programme and watch the workforce turn up in droves at 9am.
The interactivity is pitched perfectly; it’s a rebuttal to any notion that the live experience requires physical proximity. In the screen-burned loneliness of lockdown, audio has been a solace: podcasts, audiobooks, even phone calls with a strict video off policy. The easy, undemanding intimacy is appealing, a focus for the mind that requires no focusing of the eyes.
As Sam and Adam, Mugridge and Rusbatch bring all the familiar conviviality of your favourite podcast hosts, without banging on about themselves for ten minutes at the start. In fact, the market research survey provides a form loose enough to convince the audience that they themselves are the most interesting subject. As I merrily answer banal consumer choice questions, I am convinced that my masterly narrative contributions are driving the piece forward, even earning a reward for my labour with some enchanting call-backs to my choicest quotes. Director Adam Barnard has collaborated with Laura Mugridge and Paul O’Mahony to devise a piece that still maintains a Trojan rigidity, allowing the performers to sneak the story in between questions. If the structure occasionally reveals itself too plainly, that’s all part of the comfort of sitcom; the obstacles surmountable, the resolution guaranteed.
If you’re listening in a group (speakerphone recommended), what a delight it is to be able to communicate freely with your companions as the piece unfolds, trading looks and gestures with one another, interacting with them as liberally as you interact with the work. It’s the pleasure of dinnertime conversation as opposed to enjoying your meal in companionable silence. Nothing wrong with either, but after a lifetime of the latter there’s a joy to the freedom of the former.
There’s a joy in restriction too, apparently. Employees who have pivoted to working from home, freed from the constraints of their commute, have actually lost an important hour or so in the decompression chamber that allows them to transition healthily between two environments. So if we’re all living at work now, then are we also all living at the theatre? Is Now A Good Time? makes great use of the homelessness of its form, by invading ours. It’s an intrusion to be called on my actual phone, which I was in the middle of looking at, in my actual home, where I look at my phone. I’m not ready, I haven’t made the pilgrimage to the holy site, prepared myself for engagement with the work. Each time a call ends, I am plunge pooled back into my own space, but droplets of the show are carried back with me in a way that usually get shaken off on the bus home. The questions it asks about moment-to-moment living are given the time and space to take effect: I hastily answer yes when asked if I can remember a time I’ve acted spontaneously, and when the call is cut off afterwards, I’m left stewing in my own anxiety. I know that when we pick back up, I’ll be forced to lie or admit I chose a mildly risky takeaway last week.
The characters too are given the time and space to exist, and to continue existing: Without an auditorium acting as a meeting room for reality and fiction to briefly connect, your belief isn’t limited to a confined space, and it doesn’t end up trapped there. When the final call ends and I’m back in my living room, it’s easy to believe that Sam and Adam really are going for that date somewhere, precisely because that somewhere isn’t, and never was, a space they shared with me.
Is Now a Good Time? is on tour until May 24th. More info here.