“This is going to be the best, show, ever,” says one of the college students settling into the camouflaged hide of Section D. Her optimism could spring from many things: the maverick redesign of the Almeida’s space; the scattered screens suggesting a multimedia binge; the programme littered with progressively disturbing MailOnline articles. It isn’t your usual school trip to humdrum, hammed-up Shakespeare, that’s for sure. After eighty minutes the students are shuffling out, flummoxed, still half-hoping for a curtain call. Alienation, if that was the point, has been achieved.
Game feels as if it’s been plucked from the slush pile of Channel 4’s devilishly dystopian Black Mirror. Mike Bartlett’s premise is simple and sordid enough: a couple is given residency of an isolated dream-house (a slick and seductive design by Miriam Buether), complete with hot tub, car – and one-way mirrors. This catch is further barbed by the fact they’ve agreed to be stalked and shot by unseen punters wielding tranquiliser rifles – £500 a pop, cheaper than a hippo hunt in Zimbabwe. And so the couple are hunted by bickering toffs, tipsy ladettes and leering yobs (“Butterface;” they snigger of their quarry, ”everything’s good but her face”). The victims regain consciousness quickly, and with grim determination tempered by bashfulness, life in the big bothered house goes on. The opportunistic sadism is interesting: when the couple decides to try for a baby, the shooters reveal a particular relish in thwarting their conjugal attempts. Yet as the game’s popularity slips – put more chillingly, as competition soars – the producers struggle to bring in business. One by one, man, wife and child all become fair game. It is a bleak fantasy, and disbelief is never suspended enough to truly stir or terrify. The idea that anyone would subject their family to this narcoleptic nightmare in order to avoid living “somewhere shit” belongs, thankfully, to a world more cynical than ours. Yet the aim is not augury but satire, a literal manifestation of the poverty trap: the financially blithe taking pot-shots at the abject unemployed.
All is disconnect. For such a short show much of it is taken up by perky console music covering for scene changes as the blinds on the household descend. Shooters mingle with the audience, but their presence drifts over distracted shoulders; the audience are too drawn by the primal power of the main stage. Ashley and Carly, the couple, are played by Mike Noble and Jodie McNee – fine, sensitive actors who tackle the manifold challenges here unflinchingly. But the production places too much fuss between them and the audience for the story to absorb. Kevin Harvey has a bewildered and misused nobility as their warden David, whose one act of relative kindness leads to an anguished culpability for their slowly expanding hell. Others in the cast deliver the dark Bartlett wit with gusto, particularly when open season is called on the children (“You can’t have children working.” “Officially they’re not working. Performing.” “Good.”) Yet for the actors within the game it is difficult not to feel their disaffection, as they give their all in this boxed bubble without the audience reaction to fuel them. This detachment infects – wearing headphones may contribute to our feeling of complicity, but ears muffled, walled out, we are divorced from any sense of communal experience.
One of the programme notes lists prices for big game hunting in Africa, and this idea, developed, could perhaps have offered a richer reward than the aping of reality television with crisp misanthropy. Bartlett is a prolific playwright with staggering range and it’s no surprise that the occasional piece will be, for some, a curious failure. The writing, despite the disjointed dialogue, is wickedly sharp. Its execution, thanks to director Sacha Wares, is unarguably muscular. But the brawn and brains are not enough to hit their mark. This is a sensationalist piece, mighty in showmanship and mousy of heart.