A screaming woman is pointing at me. ‘Stop that man!’ she yells.‘Somebody! TAKE HIM DOWN!’ As a burly guy leaps up from his table outside a café, I start to flee. My heart thumps inside my chest. My feet are pounding the pavement. And I genuinely fear for my safety. How did I end up like this? I was coerced into committing a crime (I can’t tell you what crime without giving the game away) and it all happened via text message. For the previous two hours, I’ve been taking part in interactive theatre company Coney’s latest piece. Coney is one of several UK companies making work that challenges the idea that audiences shouldn’t be involved in a show’s outcome. In their case they create game theatre where there’s a specific mission to accomplish. In the past they’ve got punters to steal a work of art (‘Art Heist’ in 2010) and more recently had audiences deciding on a new political system (‘Early Days of a Better Nation’, 2015).
‘Adventure 1’ is a theatrical exploration of our relationship to Britain’s economic system. Which sounds deep. But I was mainly sold on the show by the claim that ‘You’ll be tailing someone who works in the heart of the financial system.’ Throughout it I’ve been getting texts directing me to locations around the City and listening to instructions on MP3s I downloaded the previous night, the most crucial of which identifies my target as ‘Mr X’.
The MP3s contain other important bits of information, but they’re also used for a lot of ‘Did you know?’ moments about the way the Square Mile affects our lives. On a visit to Mr X’s regular supermarket I’m told about hyper-sophisticated methods of gathering data on shoppers. Then an explanation of my target’s job is used to mention the City’s increasing reliance on algorithms rather than human traders.
In other words, Coney’s pieces aren’t just about the adrenaline-fuelled ride – they use theatre to get the audience to look anew at the world around them.It may sound cerebral, but all the thinky stuff is balanced well with the fun which, in ‘Adventure 1’, kicks in with the final mission. Suddenly I’m told to work with a group of other players to perform a criminal act on Mr X in a public place – and this is where I find myself being pursued by a have-a-go hero who doesn’t realise what I’ve just done is part of a show. If it hadn’t been for how quickly I legged it to a pre-arranged rendezvous, I might have got my head kicked in. Though the finale quietens down, it doesn’t matter. After my encounter with Mr X, my heart will be drumming for hours.