Bristol Old Vic, Circus City Festival; 22nd October 2015
Game is the first creation of Bristol-based Unstable King, a trio of performers who share a love of multiplayer online gaming as well as circus backgrounds. It is the gaming element that drives the show, following a route of alternative comedy that is sometimes hilarious. At other times, however, Michael Bell, Louis Lamprey and Ryan Murphy fail to take us with them in their headlong stumble through absurdities, existential philosophy, bonus games, and pop-cultural references.
Game begins with a standard theatre announcement that shifts into meta-theatrical narration of our anticipation of the show’s beginning. It’s almost like the narration of the text-adventure games that I used to play on my dad’s BBC computer in the early 90s. In fact, if this show were from the gaming world itself, it would be one of my old floppy disks, back when they really were floppy, that contained copies of lots of different games, unconnected except for their shared housing. Frogger, Chuckie Egg, Blagger, and Philosopher’s Quest. Actually, Philosopher’s Quest was too big to be on a disc with other games, it had to have a disc to itself. Maybe two if I remember rightly. And maybe Game, like this paragraph, has too much data in it as well.
The list of files reads:
-Balloons and balls
-Gamer terminology and tech
-Live competitive games and forfeits/punishments
-Music & movie references
-Physicalisation of in-game imagery
All with great potential individually, and with some interesting cross-over points between a number of them. But, jumbled together, they make me wish for either more coherence, or less. The three performers, using their own names for their onstage personae, are likeable and we warm to their eccentricity early. They also show talent in the minimal sequences of skill we see taken from the traditional circus repertoire. I am especially excited by the juggling of three exercise balls between the men laid on the floor, over all too quickly; an intricate 3-man hat juggling choreography, centred around Murphy, is a strong act in itself, but feels awkwardly wedged into the surrounding material. His ascent of two flexing extendable plastic ladders, on the other hand, has just the right amount of obscure sense to it, and gives us the enjoyable frisson of danger that circus is renowned for.
I enjoy the self-conscious yoof-speak of 20-somethings who should know better but who spend too much time in the online worlds of the young and hip, but the low-key delivery of much of the dialogue leads to repeated energy slumps over the 70 minute show. I also enjoy the moments when movement style, music choices and activity fit into a 360° retro world. Even the floor, made up of foam jigsaw pieces, could appear pixelated, and there are times when I almost see the characters in 8-bit as their physical recreation of those classic visuals are so clear. But these moments flit by too quickly in the slipstream.
The supporting programme information we’re provided with before the show sits, for the second time this week, frustratingly between being an integral part of the overall experience and being merely a useful post-show reference. It does make me laugh out loud though, and also includes details of the company’s admirable Cardboard Arcade mission. In the Old Vic foyer before the show, I spot a boy playing on one of the specially created and installed arcade games (interesting to note, there are plenty of youngsters who appeared to be in the 9-11 age range at the performance, which is not a demographic I often encounter at the theatre).
Unstable King certainly know how to push conventional ideas of performance, but also need to learn when to rein the rush of ideas in. Game is entertaining for the most part, but never gives me cause to think in new ways about the familiar ideas they present. And the reason I like to play games is for the challenge, the chance to use my brain.