When I told a work colleague about this show, her first reaction was to point out the irony that graduates of the BRIT School of Performing Arts were appearing in a production that uses reality television as a backdrop, before expressing regret that certain people she knew who studied at the BRIT School who had artistic talent didn’t make it. They are, mind you, successful… in other vocations. And while there has been some discussion about reality television ‘stars’ being elevated into certain West End productions over and above actors who have grafted and are probably more deserving of a leading role, Reality goes much wider than this. This is not your typical drama about drama.
We begin with upbeat clubhouse style music, not entirely dissimilar to the Big Brother theme tune. On large television screens dotted around the auditorium (the show is performed in the round) is a black circle on a plain white background. Inside the circle is a pair of handcuffs. This is the symbol for a reality television show called The Hostage. The idea is not entirely new. While neither the play nor the show’s programme directly references it, the famous 1971 Stanford University prison experiment, led by Professor Philip Zimbardo, looked at the psychological impact of imprisonment, subjecting some ‘prisoners’ (students participating in this experiment) to psychological abuse.
The key difference here is that this ‘series’ is not a scientific study into obedience to authority or how the mind works, but is purely, as virtually all reality television series are, in the name of entertainment.
A number of willing participants in what is apparently one of multiple rounds of auditioning for the show trickle in as they arrive. For one character, this is the fifth callback, for another the sixth, and yet another can’t quite recall how many. The ‘hostage’ atmosphere is compounded by the assistant producers being unable to open any windows because there is no available key at the venue they have hired, although one is found after some time. One of the assistant producers, Wayne (Gus Gordon), is either harsh or stagey towards the participants, depending on one’s point of view. I personally couldn’t decide which.
Quite who is who in this fairly large cast is virtually impossible to tell from the cast list: the participants are consistently referred to by where they are from: Brighton, Grimsby, Wood Green, Leeds, Dublin, and so forth. “Croydon? It’s a place, not my name!” says Jesse (Asa Haynes), not the first to self-eliminate himself from going through to the next round.
The anticipated arrival of Jeff, the executive producer, does not happen at all. Okay, so there isn’t going to be a recent graduate of the BRIT School that’s middle aged! So step forward Oscar (Jack Stimpson), who emerges from the back row of the audience, where he took his seat prior to the show starting, who later turns out to be Jeff’s son. Oscar has gone to great lengths to obtain all sorts of information about the participants, including the whereabouts and contact details of one person’s mother, with whom he has not been in touch with for many years, and the recorded testimony of a young lady’s decision not to terminate her baby, only for it to die in its infancy.
There is also a camera in the audition room, which is ruthlessly used by Oscar to record the reactions of the participants, who are then ordered to do increasingly outrageous tasks. Two of the most notable are these. Nathan (Tian Scott) is told to reveal a tattoo where the sun doesn’t shine, and Darren (a likeable Cameron Essam) is persuaded to turn on a chain saw and slice off the legs of Anya (Kitty Archer). Anya deserves this, Oscar asserted, because her spending is out of control, and she owes money to a number of organisations, including payday loan companies. Oscar takes a look at Nathan’s manhood for himself such that nothing is actually exposed to the other participants or the audience, and Darren (or ‘Grimsby’ as he was invariably referred to) e-v-e-n-t-u-a-l-l-y turns the chain saw off: “I can’t do it. I can’t do it…”
That the end outcome is the audition is the show – that is, the camera was used to record reactions and behaviour for the purposes of a television broadcast – is of little consequence in the light of the issues that Reality explores. It is of no surprise to me, again in the light of the 1971 Zimbardo study, that the most willing participant was Darrell (Alex Leak), who later transpired to be part of the production team – a plant, if you will. The prize at stake, £1 million, seemed to be less important to the participants than the opportunity to gain exposure on national television.
While I do not watch reality television, and cannot relate to wanting fame and fortune through such channels, I am sure I am not alone in being someone who could write at length about abuse of authority, and about the pleasure of pain in society. Whilst centuries ago people were tortured, sometimes publicly, this was mostly – even if later founded unproven – for trespasses of the law. Now we live in an era of bushtucker trials and Fifty Shades of Grey: people want to suffer, and other people want to see it happen. Perhaps the modern era is not so enlightened as it thinks it is.
As the play progressed it became increasingly uncomfortable. It is quite possible that some may have considered walking out at the same time some of the participants did: it really did get rather unpleasant, with characters being put under great pressure. That nobody in the audience did walk is a testament to the skill of this company to continue to hold the audience’s attention captive (if I may use that word in the context of The Hostage). Or, could it be that some people wanted to see if the participants would go through with some of the tasks laid down before them?
The paying public deserves a good show regardless of the youth of the cast or the budget (or lack thereof), and what director Sarah Bedi describes as “our cast of 19 year olds” provides plenty of talent and stage presence. If this cast is part of the future of British theatre – and it is – I have every confidence it will continue to flourish long after I am too old to enjoy as many stage productions as I am now. It’s not an oh-so-lovely musical that can just wash over you (or a musical at all, for that matter) but it does give plenty of food for thought. A strong ensemble, too: no ‘weak links’ to report.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Bridge Company presents: Reality
A large cast of young actors team up with accomplished playwright Georgia Fitch in a brand new meditation on one of the most notorious figures of reality TV
Ovalhouse, 9th June to 27th June
Running Time: 1 hour 15 mins | Suitable for ages: 14+
http://www.brit.croydon.sch.uk | @BridgeTheatre_ | @Reality_play
Recent graduates from The BRIT School – one of only two free performing arts schools in the UK – present a brand new exploration of reality TV and Britain’s appetite for quick and easy celebrity, created in collaboration with Radio 4’s Georgia Fitch. The show is produced through the school’s unique young training initiative The Bridge Company, which creates and presents dynamic, socially relevant work in a professional context, serving as a link for young actors between education and professional practice.
Depicting some of the most troubling exploitation in the television industry, with reference to the work of notorious reality TV auteur Josh Harris, Reality tells the story of Darren – a young man desperate for fame. Fresh off the train from Grimsby for sixth recall for new realityTV show The Hostage, he soon realises that this audition is going to be tougher than he imagined. Has Darren ‘got what it takes’? How far is he willing to go, and how much of himself will he give up to change his troubled life?
Director Sarah Bedi said “”What I love most about working with Georgia is her passion for giving a voice to those in society we commonly overlook. She understands people, our deepest desires and the lengths each us will go to fulfil those desires. And she’s brave enough to write it honestly. It’s exciting to get to work with the young company on text she’s written specifically for them – she’s captured their individual speech rhythms beautifully, so it tumbles out naturally – and to see them grow as they face the challenges she’s set them. Her energy is genuinely unstoppable, we’re all just trying to keep up!”
Friday 12th June 2015