Event Review | By The End of Us (Lights, Camera, Action!)

By John Son 29.06.2016

Played for a short run at the Southwark Playhouse in London, Block Stop's By The End of Us is an ambitious production telling the story of an assassin and her target, a volatile hacker, through the medium of an interactive, live-action video game. Audience members are given keypads to vote in polls that crop up at strategic moments of the story to dictate the actions of the characters and change the course of events in the story. It's no doubt an interesting concept, but how well did it work on the night?

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The story and structure of the performance is as follows: a member of the public, the "Single Player" is isolated in a private room somewhere in the theatre and is the sole person able to communicate with the assassin, Mia Culper (Melanie Grossenbacher), tasked to take out the target, Calli McCrae (Ilayda Arden). The "Multi Player," or the main audience in the theatre, views a livestream of the action from Mia's perspective, as well as being able to hear her interactions with the Single Player throughout. The character of Eddie Strauss (Oli Back), situated in main theatre with the audience, acts as the main link between the audience and the story, having a direct voice link with security guard Sam Cassett (Daniel Thompson), who is also on the scene and is tasked with saving Calli and stopping Mia. The audience's choices through the polls mostly related to Sam's actions and his movements and choices throughout the story. There is also a journalist, Harry Haldane (Kal Sabir), who gets caught up in the action. The whole thing is staged in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse, with numerous different rooms, corridors and props to help push the story forward.

The number of different variables in the story, along with the numerous branching paths and key junctions in which the plot could potentially change, as well as the malleability of the actors and situations themselves, means that the scope for the production is potentially huge. In addition, the amount of work that must go into every performance to ensure that the story is kept running smoothly isn't something that should be taken lightly.

There are, though, a few interesting points about the concept that are worth noting. Though obviously there are confines to what the story and characters can do within the "world" set up by the creators, every night plays out differently, with no two performances likely being the same. It's simply the natural result of theatre incorporating heavily improvisational elements. Certainly on one level, the feeling that you never quite know what to expect when the show begins is an exciting prospect.

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However, a minor flaw with this method is the idea that the quality of story will also fluctuate along with everything else. Particularly with a production making use of the crowd voting system, it can sometimes be mildly frustrating because, unlike a conventional video game, it is the majority ruling that dictates the actions as opposed to the feelings of the individual, which may be very different. The process is no doubt democratic, but less individualised than a normal gaming experience.

This is perhaps why I am so cautious to criticise last Wednesday's show. While there are niggles that can sorely be attributed to issues behind the scenes and therefore to the production in general (more on that later), it was how the story played out in particular which I personally wasn't a huge fan of - but is this really a fair complaint, at all?

While it is true that the audience did have some control over events, it was seemingly more the Single Player and the character of Eddie Strauss (acting as a sort of MC for the night), who had the most influence over the story. This was far from a project like Twitch Plays, where every single input and action is at the mercy of the collective chaos of the player base. Rather, By The End of Us seemed to place more emphasis on the theatrical, rather than the interactive elements, with more of a focus on watching the action carry itself forward and unfold of its own volition, rather than the audience actively dictating the story at every opportunity.

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This is why I think there might be a definite benefit in multiple visits just to get an idea of the full scope of the production, as it appears that general consistency may have been a necessary sacrifice for the implementation of interactive elements. To cite Wednesday's performance as an example, the journalist Harry Haldane played a distinctly minor role on the night despite being initially presented as one of the four main characters. After floating awkwardly on the sidelines at first, he was forced out of the story after a confrontation with Mia and wasn't seen again for rest of the performance. Under-utilisation? Maybe, but perhaps on a different night, he would have emerged as a key figure in the plot rather than just a throwaway character as he ended up being on Wednesday.

In addition to this, the ending of the story simply felt rather abrupt and, given the events leading up to it, unearned. Quite aside from the Single Player's perplexing decision to have Mia kill Calli by force-feeding her a cyanide pill rather than just shooting her, there was, admittedly, a slight tinge of anti-climax when the credits started rolling and the lights in the theatre went up; a feeling that the story arc could have possibly been meatier, more surprising, and less cluttered than it came off in the end. However, to be fair, it would indeed be asking a lot to expect every performance to be an exemplary exercise in perfect planning, pacing, and plot execution every single night of the show's run.

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The actual logistics of presenting the story - the main visual focuses being on Mia's live feed and a separate projection for the polls - worked fairly well, bar a few technical niggles. The audio setup, however, alternating between Mia's interactions with the Single Player and Sam and Eddie's phone conversations, did feel unnecessarily cluttered. For such a core element of the show, the criss-crossing of two separate storylines, at times playing simultaneously, was often confusing. Again, however, for such a fast-moving and unpredictable ship, there are bound to be difficulties in this regard, but there could be possibility for improvement in finding a tighter and cleaner way of conveying large amounts of information at one time.

Aside from these issues, what about the production went well? For one, Melanie Grossenbacher's portrayal of Mia was definitely a highlight; her dry, precise and almost robotic delivery added some much-appreciated comic relief to the proceedings, despite her never once being seen directly on camera. In fact, aside from a few instances of overacting (Calli's pre-recorded message interrupting the live video feed halfway through was a nice touch, but could have benefited from being toned down a little), the acting was generally of a good standard throughout. This is all the more impressive when considering that improvisation was a key part throughout the night.

All in all, it's clear that Block Stop is potentially onto something good here. Despite its shortcomings, the unpredictability of the plot and the audience participation elements are still big selling points in the long run. The fact remains that there are a few issues that need to be addressed before the formula can be perfected, but here's hoping that Block Stop will continue doing what they do and find a balance of sorts in their technical and artistic juggling act. For now, though, let's just say: watch this space.

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