Society is in the middle of a technological golden era. From the latest smartphones to interactive multi-player online video gaming, the younger generations are now experiencing what it’s like to be a wartime soldier, professional footballer and highly trained assassin behind the comfort of their computer screen. The age of make-believe, of imagining dragons and knights and princesses with school friends in the playground has passed. Even the idea of even being in the same room as the people with whom you are completing quests with or seeking promotion to the next sports league are retro; just pop on the console, log in to the wifi and a world of fellow gamers is ready and waiting. Despite video expo events that bring together hoards of gaming fans under one roof, the vast majority of the community never even meet face to face.
In some ways the idea of incorporating this franchise into an interactive theatre experience is well overdue, copying the mass-market experiences at MineCon or Insomnia (albeit on a much smaller scale). After the success of Dead Wait at both Soho Theatre and the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014, Block Stop Production bring their second ‘live video game’ to Southwark Playhouse. By the End of Us seeks to capitalise on the multiplayer functionality of online video gaming, whereby an audience can collectively decide the path that the story takes. This isn’t just one person in a room with a headset, this is a collective set of decisions, a set of differing opinions that come together in one singularity to decide upon the protagonists’ fate.
The plot itself is simple and fairly predictable. Mia (Melanie Grossenbacher) is an assassin sent to eliminate Calli McCrae (Ilayda Arden), a mole on the brink of committing industrial espionage with potentially disastrous global results. An individual pays extra for the privilege of controlling Mia as the Contact, seeking to understand what information is about to be leaked and eliminate the threat as it stands. The remaining audience members sit with Eddie Strauss (Oli Back), who has intercepted Mia’s mission and hacked into her live camera feed. Eddie enlists security guard Sam Cassett (Daniel Thompson) to help defend Calli on the ground, together with some collective back-room input. All in all, the show resembles the Mission: Impossible styled Shoot ‘Em Up that for the last 15 years has dominated TV screens, films and the general public imagination (longer if you consider the legacy that is James Bond). Both the audience and the single player can indulge in the ultimate fantasy using the latest in spy technology.
Technology itself should be the selling point of this particular production, the contrast that transforms the action from passive observation into interactive dialogue between Eddie and Sam. Voting devices are handed out on entry so that Sam’s choices can be manipulated and the overall storyline controlled to ensure a unique experience each time. Yes, Sam can be instructed to approach the assassin Mia, to help Calli escape or to stand back and passively observe the events from a distance. But these decisions, whilst ultimately dictating the plot, don’t serve to add any intensity to what is a predictable and uninspiring script. In fact they serve as a smokescreen to distract attention away from a clunky scenario, unreliable webcams & TV screens and underwhelming improvised acting from the main characters. As a selling point, there isn’t nearly enough focus on getting the technological logistics of this production consistently correct.
Mia herself is robotic, an older homage to Saoirse Ronan’s emotionally impaired mini-assassin Hanna; whilst this is an expected character trait from a trained killer it doesn’t add any weight or intrigue to the storyline. What has Mia suffered in the past that has resulted in this detached attitude to life? A backstory to societal recluses is crucial in establishing an empathetic connection. In this case Mia is simply a conduit for the Contact to enact out his fantasy of being a professional spy. A fantasy that the remaining audience members sit back and endure for 90 minutes, occasionally throwing in roadblocks that attempt to bring some spice to the otherwise bland set of events. The tone and pace of the show is not determined by the majority at all, or even by the actors – the success depends entirely on the capability and intelligence of this single player.
It turns out that Calli’s (Arden) actions seek to highlight public disinterest in information security and demand that society take a more active vigil in the war against cyber-crime. In some ways she can be considered a freedom fighter, exposing the flaws in her ex-company so that the world realises how dangerous it is to store so much information digitally, how easy it can be for an experienced hacker to wander along and steal a person’s identity without a second thought. Data is the new currency; information is power. This is the concrete conceptual idea that By the End of Us should seek to develop further and add some meat to the otherwise bleached bones that form the core of this plot. As it stands this is a production of style over substance, exposed all the more by unwanted pixelated images that emphasise the inadequate technology.
By the End of Us is on until 11th June 2016 at the Southwark Playhouse. Click here for more information.