"Fear and Misery post Apocalypse"
by Owen Kingston for remotegoat on 27/09/15

With the glut of productions in the UK now branding themselves as immersive when many barely do anything to earn the moniker, companies that are going all-out to create a truly immersive experience for their audiences deserve all the praise and encouragement that can be lauded on them - especially those willing to take big risks and experiment with new ideas whilst simultaneously living in the shadow of giants in the field whose polished techniques will always force a brutal comparison.

The team behind Never Ending Night will not be the first to attempt a production that some will describe as 'punchdrunk without the dancing' and they certainly won't be the last. The comparison with the biggest immersive theatre giant of them all is not a ridiculous one - the show contains some true moments of brilliance underpinned by familiar immersive techniques, and the company has clearly set its sights on producing genuinely immersive and theatrically interesting work. Sadly, on this occasion, they do not quite hit the mark.

The immersion begins at ticket-checking when the audience are herded by soldiers into a makeshift military facility, checked for signs of 'the Virus', and given a B&Q paint suit and paint mask to 'wear at all times'. The audience are then coralled inside a holding area for what seems to be an eternity watching essentially the same morbid and depressing scene play out over and over again with different characters. One could be forgiven for thinking the apocalypse has already consumed the audience and transported everyone to hell - a hell full of actors coughing and retching up their lines. It transpires that this was what one misses out on if one has purchased a later ticket in the staggered entry system, but for arriving at the very start of the show, your reward is to be subjected to this terminally boring, repetitive, depressing display of misery and coughing. Oh the coughing. I get it. There's a virus. Can we please stop with the coughing.

At this point I must pause for a candid revelation. By the time the show really started I was done. Done with the
coughing, and done with the same repetitive questions and answers ("I just need to see your hands...") but most of all done with the unrelenting misery. If this was to be the whole show I was about ready to quit, and had I not had a job to do I probably would have done. What had likely been intended as an introduction to each of the characters did not hook me into their stories or make me want to find out more about their lives, it just bored and frustrated me - hot and sticky in my paint suit - and because of this, when the real meat-and-two-veg of the piece arrived I was not in the mood to receive it, which is a shame as Never Ending Night does contain some truly superb work.

You see, once the never-ending prologue is done with, the show really comes to life. As the audience move from the holding area into the main space the show begins to deliver on the promise of its premise. The audience has full freedom to explore "the bunker" where the many characters find themselves surviving. Essentially a large split-level room with bunks and a kitchen and all manner of interesting spaces, one can follow characters around as they interact with each other, eavesdrop on private conversations and watch larger set-piece scenes play out. At first the 'story' is unclear, the misery is still overwhelming, and one is simply grateful for a semi-comfy sofa. But as the larger set-piece scenes progress, more of these characters lives are revealed and one cannot help but be drawn in. Predictably, it's the conflicts that spark the most interest, and this intensifies as the literal and figurative hot-house of the bunker puts everyone on edge and the characters rub up against each other more fiercely. There are also some superb performances here that demand attention, and the freedom to attach oneself to the characters that most appeal is always welcome. It is in moments of lightness and humour where the show really begins to shine, and the touching way in which this collection of misfit characters slowly becomes a community is truly moving. The ending is a genuine tear-jerker.

However, the shining moments here are too easily ecliped by the turgid ones. The signal-to-noise ratio is not good enough. For every beautiful moment there are at least three drawn-out, over-indulgent or just plain boring ones. There is also a conspicuous lack of audience interaction. With the audience so close to the actors, many attempts were made by audience members, some well intentioned and some perhaps less so, to make a personal connection with a character. To blanketly deny such a connection seemed to frustrate many. Much of the joy in this piece comes from finding out what makes these complex characters tick. Denying the audience direct access to these characters, therefore, seems counter-intuitive, if necessary to preserve the fragile half-logic of the presence of the audience in the first place. Are we fellow survivors? If so, why can we not be seen? Are we the dead, observing like ghosts? If so, why the rigmarole with the military at the beginning involving those wretched masks and paint suits? Of course practically they serve to distinguish us from the actors, but in the world of the play who are we, and why are we there? Questions that shouldn't bother us, but they start to as attention is continually drawn to them by the steadfast refusal of the actors to acknowledge our existence under any circumstances. If, in developing this piece further, ways can be found to introduce interaction between the actors and the audience in a manner that is logical and doesn't interrupt the nature of the storytelling, it could go a long way towards mitigating the signal-to-noise problems currently hampering the audience from engaging with the performance.

There are many such improvements that could be suggested, including cutting completely the terminally long opening scene, which may or may not improve the audience experience substantially. It is for good reason that well-established and better resourced companies opt for long 'burning in' periods with shows such as this, to iron out the kinks and polish the audience experience until it shines consistently. With only three nights of public performance, this is not something that can even hope to be achieved for Never Ending Night. If this show is to have a continuing life, and I sincerely hope that it does, then considerable thought needs to be given to the audience experience, beyond that which has already been achieved. There is a superb story and a superb piece of theatre lurking at the heart of this production, but unfortunately the show gets in the way of itself far too frequently for it to be consistently enjoyable. Were this an early preview, one would want to give extensive feedback and return in two or three weeks to see a vast improvement, but when one is viewing the second of three nights of the finished production that is sadly not an option any more.

Never Ending Night should be applauded for its ambition and the moments of beauty it manages to achieve. There is a genuinely touching narrative here along with some engaging characters and exemplary performances from individual actors, but one cannot help but wonder if this story might be easier to engage with and wholeheartedly more enjoyable if presented in a more traditional theatrical way. It is a tragedy even to suggest such a thing, as the immersive nature of the performance ought to be the crowning glory of this company's achievement and the main reason to go and experience their production, but sadly in its current form it seems to hinder the storytelling more than it helps it. I only hope the company will continue to work on this piece in order to present a more polished and well considered production at a later date - one that might be compared more favourably with the work of the giants of the genre they seek to master.

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