Access All Area’s show The Interrogation uses a combination of audio and video clips to tell the fictionalised account of a bad day in the life of Charlene Salter, its co-writer and lead performer. Inspired by a story of an autistic teenager whose headteacher called the police on him when he was trying to ask for help, the show confronts the way that disabled people are often treated as threats when they are at their most vulnerable. As the audience wander around the streets near the theatre, led by an app, we start to come face to face with the suspicion and accusations faced by those who don’t act ‘normally’ in public spaces.
The show is presented through the fictional app SRR – “See it, Record it, Report it”. Like an even worse version of Nextdoor, it invites users to record and report antisocial behaviour, using these reports to mark local areas as unsafe and, depending on the severity, alert the authorities. The tone it hits is a perfectly disturbing shade of believable. While it is more overtly sinister than many social media platforms, with members of the public invited to police each other’s behaviours, the services it offers – to record and share things you see out in public – are almost universal on the internet. The messaging is also spot on; an opening advert makes familiar overtures about creating safety in the community without saying exactly who gets to be considered part of that ‘safe’ community; and it is almost impossible to hear the app’s name without thinking of the British Transport Police’s oft-repeated ‘See it. Say it. Sorted.’ The app is an effective way of both guiding the action – leading you from spot to spot, giving ‘updates’ from users and inviting you to leave your own report – and getting to the heart of the play’s questions.
Technology is far from vilified in The Interrogation – Charlene talks a lot about the benefits her phone gives her (being able to contact friends, look at a map, or listen to music) and it is being cut off from many of these resources that causes a crisis in the show. But the ways that technology feeds into a culture of surveillance and suspicion are brought to the front. Most of all, the show highlights the problems with the convenience of technology: not just that it is easy to snap a picture, take a video, or call the police, but that we have come to expect problems to have easy technological answers, and that this expectation is extremely dangerous when it meets a complex situation like someone having a crisis in public.
Situating the show in the streets is a good way of bringing the story’s events home for the audience. Surrounded by familiar locations you start to ask yourself; what would I do if I saw someone in distress? Have I walked past someone who needed help and not noticed? Or chosen to ignore something, too busy to stop?
While the location is effective, the promenade element doesn’t quite work smoothly. The experience is designed for audio and video clips to be played while the user is stationary, before they move to the next location. Unsurprisingly, Access All Areas are very considerate of their audience’s needs – clips are not triggered by location but by audience members pushing a button, and it is made clear that taking alternate routes, or even finding somewhere to sit for the show’s entirety, is completely welcome. The stationary sections, however, are long, and the walking sections accompanied only by the repetitive electronic instructions of the SRR app, meaning that the experience often feels disconnected.
Despite this, the audio and video themselves are frequently compelling and visceral. Language starts to break down as Charlene’s distress increases, and those around her get more hostile. Former symbols of comfort – dancing, the theatre, her phone – start to become twisted and corrupted, like the digital glitches that start to make their way into Max Pappenheim’s sound design. Charlene’s confusion and frustration is particularly well shown through a short game for the audience which successfully mirrors the experience of feeling like the answers are always out of reach.
Charlene’s story is mixed with performances by other artists addressing similar themes – especially the way that heightened visibility in public for learning disabled people is met by a lack of understanding of their behaviours. A song and dance by Lee Phillips and Dayo Koleosho is particularly effective at lightening the mood midway through, giving a humourous twist on the topic.
The Interrogation doesn’t give easy answers to any of its situations, stressing that it is the pursuit of easy answers that can cause the most serious problems. It interrogates the audience as members of a local community, and doesn’t let us turn away from difficult situations as easily as closing an app.
The Interrogation ran at Tobacco Factory Theatres from 21-26 September. It tours to Rich Mix and Battersea Arts Centre until 3rd October. More info here.