It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine. Actually, I’m having a pretty good time. A nice woman just taught me how to make pepper spray. Another helped me to fashion a crossbow from office stationery. I now know how to distil my own alcohol and how to escape from a straitjacket. I’m drinking from a bottle of cider (there’s a beer shortage in the apocalypse) and some guys are playing the drums. People are dancing. Party hats bob up and down.
Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari see this world going out not with a bang but with a party popper. Party Skills for the End of the World is part immersive theatre piece, part wacky night out. Plunging its audience into some unspecified crisis, it equips us with the skills to survive and have fun while we’re at it. We’re taught how to sew up an open wound, but also how to make a martini. Spectators wander around clutching improvised weapons and balloon animals. It’s all a bizarre mix of club night, disaster movie and children’s birthday party.
Individually, its parts are engaging enough. The show begins on the second floor of an abandoned university building, in a long, open room lined with tables of gin and cocktail glasses. From there, we’re ushered downstairs to be serenaded with survival skills by performers stationed on walkways overhead. For a while, we’re free to roam from room to room, deciding which abilities we need to acquire to survive the hastening Armageddon. Then, as alarms sound, we’re hurried through more stairwells and corridors, down to a party where we shelter from the apparent destruction outside.
The use of the space – a disused, labyrinthine building on the University of Salford campus – is inspired. It’s large and confusing enough that it’s possible to lose all sense of where you are as you follow fellow audience members down gloomy, torch-lit corridors. The atmosphere of institutional decay feels genuinely apocalyptic, a feeling that’s heightened by Abigail Conway and Bethany Wells’ end-of-the-world-chic design. The building is full of ingenious little touches: lampshades made from biros, improvised bars in the old library stacks.
As a whole experience, though, the piece fails to cohere. Its scenes are disparate; fun but disjointed. Ben and Max Ringham’s unsettling sound design does its best to build tension, but the sense of peril is always mild. Perhaps, in a world that is already so full of disaster, fictional catastrophes like this just don’t cut it. Instead of provoking thought or feeling, this simulated apocalypse is mostly an entertaining escape from the real fears and threats that press in on us outside.
Just one scene feels properly, fleetingly powerful. The music stops, a hush falls, and Barrett begins talking. He is listing fears: things we worry about, things we might regret, things we think others think of us. It’s a catalogue of everyday and existential anxieties. The implicit question seems to be: what matters? What do we really care about? Which fears and which cares do we want to hold onto at the fall of civilisation?
There’s a sense of possibility that comes wrapped up in endings. I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, in which she documents the temporary communities that are born out of natural and man-made catastrophes. In the disruption of authority and hierarchies after terrible events, fragile utopias often spring up. People reach across divides to help one another, offering a brief glimpse of a better world.
There’s a whisper of that possibility in Party Skills for the End of the World, but it struggles to be heard over the noise of the festivities. The question of how we might fill the void left by the collapse of civilisation is never as urgent as how we might get our kicks while the world crumbles around us. There’s something grimly apt about that; we as a species are very good at partying on while the planet burns. The show, though, seems to want something more that it never quite achieves. Partying together is not the same as forming a community.
Party Skills at the End of the World is on until 16 July 2017 at the Manchester International Festival. Click here for more details.