‘Game’ is about as high-concept as mainstream theatre gets, a short, experimental show that’s like a cross between a series of ‘Big Brother’ and Iain Duncan Smith’s wettest dream.
Radically reformatting the Almeida, Sacha Wares’s production of Mike Bartlett’s new play seats the audience in four ‘zones’ around a house with one-way see-through walls and microphones that relay sounds inside to headphones we’re issued with. A young working-class Liverpudlian couple, Ashley (Mike Noble) and Carly (Jodie McNee) move in. We know something is up, because a scene screened on the monitors above our heads shows Kevin Hardy’s ex-squaddie David being recruited for a job related to the house that involves knowing how to use a gun.
And so it proves. Ashley and Carly have made a pitiful Faustian pact: the opportunity to live in a nice house they could never normally afford, provided that members of the public can pay to shoot them through the wall with tranquiliser darts. The taciturn David, another working-class Scouser, supervises the shootings and seems to die a little each time.
Little vignettes show us the punters, amusingly sketched by Bartlett: they’re all ‘normal’ people: posh twats, pissed-up birthday girls, embittered older couples – the lot.
If we were watching it on a stage, all this would seem stupendously heavy-handed and thinly sketched. But Ware and Bartlett totally immerse us in vivid flashes of this world, in which two people have had their self-respect eroded to the point that they’ll accept something utterly degrading in exchange for a basic right like a home. ‘Game’ simmers and stews on many levels: it’s about the housing crisis, but it’s also about class war, about the growing unkindness in our society, about reality TV and about how all these things form a vicious circle feeding into each other.
It’s an odd experience, sometimes more like watching the taping of a TV show than going to the theatre. It feels like a lesser play than Bartlett’s ferocious ‘Bull’, which played the Young Vic last month, although they have a lot in common thematically. Nonetheless, ‘Game’ is a stimulating and mostly successful experiment, its chutzpah as exhilarating as its message is depressing.