Last Seen

Almeida Theatre, 8 – 12 July 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

It can’t be long now before the practice of equipping theatre audiences with headphones goes mainstream. The technique has rapidly filtered from London’s fringe, where it’s used in experimental scratches to create audio-controlled audience-members-as-performers, to the Almeida, one of the larger off West End venues, where it’s used as a tool to solve some of the problems inherent in outdoor promenade. Next stop, the West End, where presumably it’ll be used to provide DVD-style commentary or something.

Whether or not a West end production would utilise the technique’s full dramatic potential, chances are it would have the budget to overcome some of the technical issues that blight the Almeida’s production, Slung Low’s Last Seen.

The company use chunky ear-defender type radio ‘phones and miked-up actors to ensure that even those in the audience who can’t see the action can at least hear every nuance of the dialogue. A sound tech accompanies the procession around the streets of Islington, armed with a bulky backpack that broadcasts incidental music and sound effects to accentuate the actors’ voices or underscore silent sequences. The technology vastly improves the outdoor promenade format, helping maintain an atmosphere that could otherwise easily be shattered by background noise.

There are three routes, and each audience member only gets to see one, but occasionally you can catch glimpses of set pieces not intended for you: a fully laid dinner table through a park gate is a reminder that the stories you see are never the entirety of what the city has to tell. Every passer-by wearing headphones or a hands-free set feels like they could potentially be a player. Though all you ever do is follow and listen, there’s an exciting sense of exploration and discovery without the attendant dangers of the unknown.

But – and though it most probably isn’t the company’s fault, it’s still a big but – the headphones pick up interference far too easily. Some of the dialogue sinks under waves of static, which can be physically painful on the ear, and the music under one potentially very poignant moment has to share the airwaves with a local pirate radio station broadcasting from a nearby window.

The technology is simultaneously the best and worst aspect of Last Seen. Without it, the production would be at best pedestrian and at worst inaudible. Because of it, the production will be discussed more for its technical flaws than for its dramatic merit (as I’ve demonstrated). What the production definitely is, though, is a glimpse of how the technology could positively impact theatre, whether as a dramatic technique in itself or as a facilitatory tool, once its shortcomings are ironed out. The theatre world might just have to wait until the technology catches up to its vision.

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Across the road a family is falling apart in fast-forward. My bulky headphones shut out the traffic and the conversations of passers-by, instead underscoring the scene with poignant music. Then I take a step forward to get a better view, and my headphones start picking up pirate radio.

This incident, like most of the niggling little technical problems in Slung Low’s outdoor promenade piece Last Seen, is not the company’s fault, and as such it doesn’t feel fair to criticise it. But it so interferes with the mood of the moment that it’s impossible to describe the experience of the production without mentioning it.

The audience, divided into three groups, follows three different miked-up storytellers – who can speak directly into their headphones, which shut out all other sound – around Islington, where a story unfolds. The headphones solve one of outdoor promenade’s major problems by making sure everyone can hear the performers at all times, and also enhance the experience by adding incidental music and sound effects.

It’s a sound idea in theory, and Slung Low execute it as well as humanly possible. A mixture of live and recorded speech, plus music and effects, dovetail with action on the street and in restaurant and flat windows, all without a single timing mishap. The system helps sidestep the promenade malaise (witness a scene, walk for a bit, witness another, walk some more; you get some exercise, but no artistic outcome, from the walkabout format) by allowing dialogue to continue while on the move.

But the headphones intermittently pick up interference, which is at best distracting and at worst overwhelms the dialogue or sound. It’s impossible to forget that you’re wearing them and lose yourself in the action.

The story itself, in my case, is Simon Burt’s Reason Season Life Time: an almost literal trip down Memory Lane with Terrance, whose many regrets haunt him through the residential streets of Islington. Burt’s script engages fully with the location, and Barry McCarthy loads Terrance’s voice with longing and indignation in both the live and pre-recorded dialogue.

It’s a story about the interaction of the physical and spiritual, which questions whether escaping a memory could be as easy as escaping the place it was born. Unfortunately, the show runs for less than a week, which probably isn’t long enough for Slung Low and the Almeida to resolve the technical issues – which means that story may never take its rightful place centre stage.

Written by Simon Burt (Reason Season Life Time), Lolita Chakrabarti (Joy) and Matthew David Scott (The Great Bear)

Crew includes Matt Angove, Laura Clark, Ben Eaton, Will Edwards, Heather Fenoughty, Lucy Hind, Alan Lane, Jack Lowe, Victoria Pratt, Ben Pugh, Richard Warburton and Jenny Worton

Cast includes Lolita Chakrabarti (Joy in Joy), Francis Lee (Dixie in The Great Bear) and Barry McCarthy (Terrance in Reason Season Life Time)

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