You walk into a darkened theatre, alone. A blank stage and three rows of empty plastic chairs are before you. You choose whether to linger in the doorway, or sit in a chair. You decide to sit in a chair. As you do, a disembodied voice welcomes you, and asks you your name.
This is the opening of Sam Jenkins’ Over & Over, one of the 2014 Verge Festival’s most original offerings. From the back of the room, eerily anonymous in a Guy Fawkes mask, Jenkins narrates a story in second person: a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure brought to life. There are no actors, a sparse set, and few props. Instead, the stage is populated by members of the audience, called forth by name when the plot requires them.
Audience participation is always a gamble – it calls to mind dreary magic shows, where awkwardly giggling audience members perform menial tasks to support an often flaccid main act. In this case, however, the gamble pays off. Guided by Jenkins’ calmly droll narration, audience members mime their way through a world that meanders between the dystopian (an Orwellian “job factory”) and the absurd (a cigar-smoking military puppy). Even when awkwardness and hesitation arises, it enhances the performance – Jenkins’ quick improvisational wit manages to incorporate the performers’ moments of self-consciousness and confusion into a seamless narration of the unfolding events. It’s this flexibility which holds together a show which, unlike the most rehearsed theatre, relies and thrives upon disparate themes and unexpected twists.
Jenkins’ narration too is delightfully unexpected, managing to be at once gentle and uncaring – some of the best passages are those in which he expounds on a character’s accidental death with the same kind of vague disappointment reserved for a child who has forgotten their homework yet again. There are some darkly funny moments, such as when a character oversteps the kerb. “The bus doesn’t miss you,” Jenkins says, as though describing the weather. “And neither does anyone else.” At other times, the performance turns abruptly serious, eulogising a military death by noting that the character will be remembered as a hero – but only by the victors.
Despite the dark undertones, the performance is marked by its humour. The uncertainty of audience volunteers and their scrambling attempts to correct movement to match narration makes for great physical comedy, with highlights including a frantic attempt to un-peel a banana. Jenkins demonstrates a remarkable ability to track jokes throughout the performance, noting a performer’s aversion to plots involving running, and incorporating playful remarks at their expense throughout.
The blurred lines between audience and performance make Over & Over an intensely intimate production. This intimacy enhances both its humour, and the reception of its more serious moments. The fourth wall, if it exists at all, is broken and reassembled so often by the narration and audience involvement that it is difficult to simply sit back and observe: the experience is one of compulsory inclusivity. Subtle touches, like the extension of the second person narration to the reminder to switch off phones, add to the immersive sense of the performance. The effect is one of deep authenticity: the jokes are fresh rather than overwritten, and audience laughter is frequent and unforced.
As with any performance, at times there are imperfections – in the showing I attended, background music occasionally drowned out voiceovers, and characters had to ask for repeats. But ultimately, the fluidity of the show, largely attributable to Jenkins’ improvisational talent, is sufficient to carry its flaws, and more often than not, convert them into comedy.
It’s almost a pity that the show premiered as part of the Verge festival – amidst the abundance of theatre and comedy offerings, Over & Over’s two performances were easily missed. As a show which guarantees originality with every new audience, it’s something I could easily see, as the name suggests, over and over.