"Real scientists make bad actors"
by Owen Kingston on 26/01/15

In 2050 the future is neither bright nor orange. Global warming has led to rising sea levels which in turn has led to the world collectively flipping out, scrapping the UN, and creating a new UN-like organisation with a sexier name: New Atlantis. The audience, as Agents of New Atlantis, are gathering to determine the future of the world, so no pressure or anything.

Housed in "The Crystal" - a remarkably energy-efficient and futuristic building constructed by Siemens - this production certainly sets out on the right foot. On entering this futuristic edifice a presentation sketches out, with the flimsiest of details, the scenario outlined above, and unleashes the ticking clock of a potential power vacuum - the Secretary General is too sick to continue in her role - who will replace her?

Agents of New Atlantis are given a mere hour-and-a-quarter to make this massively important decision, and a choice of three candidates - one each from the Ministries of Defence, Labour and Reform. Agents are then invited to take a tour of the facilities of each of these ministries, and ask questions of the scientists and policy-makers therein.

Each of these grandiose-sounding ministries, it turns out, operate out of a small suite of connected rooms on the first floor with skeleton staff of between five and ten scientists and policy makers each. Free to wander wherever they please, Agents walk between these rooms which each contain a variety of exhibits, making the place feel rather uncomfortably like a high-school science fair, while real-life serious scientists and engineers try and engage with them about real-life environmental problems and potential futuristic solutions.

Should we mine Antarctica for it's natural resources? How can we best save water? Would I like to try a simulation of Asteroid mining with a broken RC tractor and a few water bottles? The scientists are earnest and seem to be enjoying the play-acting, but few are fully committed to the premise, and attention to detail in the design is sorely lacking. "If the arctic has completely melted, why can I see it on that map?" asks one Agent. "It appears we're looking at Google earth from 2015" comes the nervous scientist response. "Why are all your folders empty? Are they just there for show?" asks another agent. Stuttered 'ums' and 'ahs' dissuade any further searching questions. "Would you like to hear about alternative fuels?" Actually, I was hoping for something a little more exciting.

We were certainly promised more. LASTheatre have some exciting names on their cast and crew list. Stephen Dobbie's excellent sound design is in evidence, but Punchdrunk veteran Sam Booth is nowhere to be seen inside the science fair. Rather than experiencing mesmerising performances from immersive theatre veterans, nervous scientists - many of whom are clearly unaccustomed to public presentation - are instead being expected to hold the attention of the audience for far too long. Even the genuine actors amongst the cast are struggling with the improvisational demands placed on them by curious audience members.

Finally the Agents are summoned to hear closing arguments and make a vote - a process which is interrupted by (shock, horror!) a fourth faction hell bent on Revolution. Masked and robed figures reminiscent of the online hacker group Anonymous fill the gallery above the Agents heads, and the powerful voice of the charismatic Mr. Booth exhorts us to rise up and overthrow the repressive regime. At this point, the audience would give anything for a bit of actual drama, and the resulting vote is overwhelmingly in drama's favour with nearly 40% of the assembled Agents voting for the sinister masked and hooded rebels.

LASTheatre certainly have many of the right ingredients for a successful immersive production. Intriguing story - check. Interesting building - check. Involvement of immersive theatre veterans - check. But it all somehow falls short of the mark. A lack of attention to detail in both the design of their 'story', such as it is, and the design of their 'immersive' environment undermines the premise, while bizarrely the actors merely bookend the show with their performances, leaving the bulk of it to be carried by untrained actors attempting to engage the audience with scientific knowledge. The experience is not a dreadful one, but seems poorly thought through - with the ingredients to hand, one would have hoped for so much more.

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