I always loved Choose Your Own Adventure books. Definitely not the Steve Jackson ones where you had to roll dice (who did that?) to find out whether you defeated the troll or had to go back to the very start. No, I’m talking about those completely original, world-expanding stories where aliens invade and you, dear reader, have to decide whether to fight or flee or surrender (turn to pages 10, 15 or 67 respectively) or, be pursued by a ghost, must choose to investigate the supernatural or unmask the crook (it was the janitor, spoilers!).
On entering Saint Jude, the new site-specific theatre experience from Swamp Motel (who brought us The Drop and the online lockdown team experience The Isklander Trilogy, we learn we’re Guidestars, recruited as volunteers to talk to coma patients using revolutionary, patented brainwaves-to-speech technology. We’re altruistic. Kind. Meddling with things that shouldn’t be meddled with. It’s the perfect premise for an immersive psychological thriller where I never quite know if I’m doing it right, but am braced to find out what happens if I do it wrong.
With a handbook and face-to-face training, we’re taught to use the specialist equipment – an Echosump console, with a primitive display, microphone, headphones and keyboard. I’ll admit I go in a little sceptical – I spend a lot of my time sitting at a computer screen, trying to finally finish reading the internet (don’t we all?) – but my fears are unfounded. Alone in an elegant office cubicle (wood panelling rather than plastic, with a miniature zen sand garden and rake), I begin talking to my Sleeper, he talks back, and I’m whisked away.
I can’t tell you much about what transpires in my conversation with the coma patient. Firstly there’s patient confidentiality to think about, but also there’s the fact that everyone entering this show will have a different experience from each other, with a story that responds to our input and whose ending isn’t written until we contribute to it.
The best praise I can give is that I leave the building genuinely unsettled by what I’ve been through. Arthur C Clarke famously said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.‘ While we’re not quite there yet (despite the terrifyingly human-like output of the latest AI chatbots), Swamp Motel have sprinkled just enough human intervention to produce moments where I scrabble to keep up with a show one step ahead of my thinking at all times. I can’t game the system, and there’s no turning back twenty pages when a bad choice leads me to the sharp end of a death ray.
My standard immersive theatre caveat is to point out that your mileage may vary: what you put in has an impact on what you get out. But, unusually for this type of production, I think you’d be hard-pressed not to get swept up with an experience that blends originality, music and technological design wizardry to show us what the future of theatre could well look like.
Review by Ben Ross
Nestled between The Ministry of Justice and The Department of Health & Social Care is an organisation called Saint Jude. This company provides comfort, communication and conversation to people in lifelong, irreversible comas. As set out in the company’s mission statement, “Our innovative software reads the brain patterns of sleeping coma patients, before transforming them into speech in a split second, allowing you to converse with minds we once thought were lost. Now, Saint Jude are looking for willing participants to join the programme and explore the minds of their sleepers”.
From the makers of the smash-hit immersive theatre experience, The Drop, and online sensation the Isklander trilogy, Swamp Motel Presents:
100 Petty France, London, SW1H 9EW
Tuesday 24 January – Saturday 11 March 2023