EXCLUSIVE REVIEW: Sleepover, Next Big Thing Festival (ATC)

Dancing

The show that sent me to Sleep [by James Wenley]

Sheep!

Did you hear about the show where a woman had an affair with a cake and all the audience members were dressed in their Pyjamas?

If you didn’t, there’s a very good reason. SLEEPOVER was the most mysterious, and the most exclusive event of Auckland Theatre Company’s recent Next Big Thing Festival (for which you definitely should have heard of Tusk Tusk and Checkout Chicks).  It ran for only two nights, taking over the entirety of the Basement Theatre from 11pm, and could only accommodate 20 audience members per night.

I was one of the lucky 40, and the only invited reviewer.  And so that’s the other reason – I haven’t posted my review till now. So time to reveal all.

This has to be the one of the strangest shows I have had to review; as the night went on the small audience became an important performer in the show itself. And it was the longest – we were there from 10:30 to collect our Sleepover Lanyards and meet our fellow audience members, the ‘show’ started at 11pm, and we went to bed around 3am, struggled to sleep, then awakening circa 7am and getting kicked out of the venue at 8:30am.

For the purposes of this review I’d like to give some suggestion of what the event was like for those who missed out or weren’t brave enough to don their PJs, if it worked, and whether the ‘sleepover’ concept can be more than just a one night stand.

You don’t get ready for Sleepover like you would for a normal show. Getting everything together was accompanied by the giddiness you’d feel going on a school camp. Their email made sure to tell us that “The Basement itself will be closed once SLEEPOVER commences – there will be no access in or out of the venue unless arranged with the Safety Monitor on the night.” A Safety monitor! Just what would they be getting us to do?

I can understand if you never take any of my reviews seriously again

Our arrival at The Basement, pre-kitted in PJs and snuggling sleeping bag and pillow, is met with whoops from the Checkout Chicks audience stragglers, and a photo is summarily taken for posterity.

Sleepover was devised by director Chris Neels and his cast of 9 who stayed ‘in character’ the entire time. Ash Jones (Paul) approaches us, my greeting of “Hey Ash, when are we going to get started?” ignored. His character spins a conceit of The Basement bar manager no longer being happy with us being at the Basement, and upon his signal we all need to hide.  While the manager is otherwise occupied, we are all squashed into the door space leading into The Basement’s mainstage, audience member Tama Jarman (fresh himself from performing in The Arrival) chucking in jokes as we wait for the all clear.

Doors open, and Ash and his friends are ready to party, climbing up onto the Bar counter. But wait, the manager has returned, and gives Paul a right telling off. Plan B: We are going back to Paul’s flat. Conveniently, this is right upstairs in the Basement Studio space. Though the storytelling here is somewhat confused, even a little bit ‘lame’, we bring a sense of anticipation and ‘what is going to happen next?’ up the stairs.

The flat aren’t happy to see us, and don’t want to entertain us guests. Jonathan (Dan Veint) has work the next day. After much argument, we’re sent through a corridor of sheets blocking off the Next Big Thing  dressing rooms, and past actor Paul rehearsing for a kid’s show the following morning (which I understand, was art imitating life) and down into couple Jonathan and Angie (Morgan Albrecht’s) spacious bedroom. (Tusk Tusk set with an added bed).  We sat in the audience seats, and awkwardly watched the two go to sleep. Then the fun really began…

Jonathan gets out of bed and leads us to the doorway where we had previously waited for the show to begin; now it was occupied by a desk by business colleagues who suggest that finely groomed Veint should get a haircut. Soon, he’s coughing up hairballs.

It takes a while, as there is no clear transition, but the framework begins to form – we had entered a dream world where the preoccupations of each of the flatmates reveal themselves as the type of dream sequences psychoanalysts would love to get their hands on.

We’re led up and down the Basement stairs to the Studio, Mainstage, Bar, Foyer, and even female bathrooms as vignettes of each character’s dream story plays out for us.

Some dream threads were more developed and successful than others, though there was a good mix of overall tone and style. Albrecht’s Angie’s dream was sexually charged and psychologically disturbing. It played on themes of desire and the fear of infidelity, so far so normal, but in the dreamworld her love object was a cake with bright pink icing. This dream had a clear link with the establishing flat scene; she had to decorate cakes even though she didn’t eat them herself. So a difficult relationship with food takes a whole new meaning in dream land, where Albrecht plays her role with delicious  commitment; she even has a brazen and bizarre love making scene with the cake.*

Paul’s dream delved most into subconscious dream (il)logic – a cardboard coffin is slowly carried upstairs, he chalks an outline of a person, and there’s a repeated image of falling – beguiling and creepy, this dream playing out some deep repression from our ‘real life’ earnest party animal.

A riff on The Hunger Games from Agnes (Steph Van Geete), who had earlier been seen reading the novel in the flat, provided an extended narrative that firmly pushed the audience into the action. We were taken through selection, training, and finally the battle where audience members were chosen to compete in a hilarious blindfolded battle to kill each other with paper. Also featuring cameos from a frothy Effie Trinket character (Kat Wesseling) and a ridiculous pseudo-Jamaican accented training coach (Ash Jones) who talked us through the secrets to staying alive, it was an entertaining high-point.

Other entertaining sequences involved Clive (Adnaan Narot) imagining himself in climatic battles which always end with him defeating the bad guys, having a babe on his arm, and riding off into the sunset (nice use of giant fan here for wind effect), delivering some cheesy nods to films like Drive and Top Gun. Shaun’s (Jim Cawthorn) dream dipped into the absurd, a trio of sheep popping out around the Basement when you least expect it. Shaun begins baaing for minutes, before a brilliant moment of realisation: “Shit, I’m having a sheep dream”.  Trapped in a sheep’s body, and unable to wake himself up, he spends the rest of the night in perplexed terror.

Ivan (Shaan Kesha)’s storyline suffered from poor set-up and didn’t go much beyond a orienteering trip gone wrong (which the whole show sometimes resembled, as we were taken up and down and around and back again), though I appreciated the timely arrival of packets of Rashuns to eat (“These are the last of the Rations”). Ashley (Melody Knapp’s) dream saw her being chased by executive robots that she eventually fought off in a cool dance battle, but was more or less a one note gag and we learned the least about her character in dream or ‘real life’.

Breaking it down

With the level of unreality and dramatic conceit, I didn’t expect to be emotionally touched, but touched I was by the story of ugly-duckling Chrissy (Katrina Wesseling), whose thoughts, told in recorded voice over,  revealed her unrequited love for Jonathan, and bonkers unhealthy obsession. A ball she’s preparing for, where she hopes she will get noticed, leads to a special part of the night.  We are invited to dance on the Basement stage, and audience and actor dance together – it’s a massive fun and free party. There are lots of little stories here – I share a dance and conversation with Agnes, who tells me not to spoil the end of the Hunger Games – as well as a feeling of the group, together.  Then Chrissy arrives to see us – and I remember looking around at everyone and feeling a sense of euphoria – ‘how cool is this moment’. This was something special indeed.  And there was poor Chrissy. With lovely understatement from Katrina, we feel her disappointment and rejection when Jonathan has no eyes for her.  Hey girl, I’ll notice you!

Apart from a visible and lengthy run sheet of the sequences on the corridor wall (uh oh, spoilers!), the room and character changes were rather seamless, an impressive ensemble effort from the actors and hidden tech crew. At times it would have been nice to linger longer in locations and scenes rather than being herded so quickly to the next environment.

With the dreams wrapped up, the flat mates awake professing no knowledge of all we have seen. We return to the Studio space which has been transformed into a big tent city with sleeping mattresses for everyone. Awesome.

It did get slightly weird here – the decision was to stay in character, but with the dramatic conceit of the hostility towards the guests there was an abrasive air. While some wanted to bed down immediately, the flatmates entertained (or annoyed us, depending who you ask) by reading extracts from a puberty book (juvenile humour here), a baby name’s book, and the titular story from The Pillowman (good choice Shaan Kesha!) as we enjoyed some lukewarm Milo.  I can’t say I slept very well, being a man of above average height, having to curl myself to fit. Still, being in The Basement, over night, and having just experienced such a singular theatrical event, it was worth some discomfort.

All was forgiven in the morning when croissants and other goodies were offered to the audience, though by then I definitely didn’t feel like an audience member anymore. Steph, I mean Agnes, helpfully updated us with the morning’s news, and there was a relaxed vibe. Turned out it was Sunday morning too, and Jonathan didn’t need to go to work after all.

There was one more coda to the previous night’s plot, providing a hopeful conclusion to Chrissy’s romantic anguish. Then the Basement door shut on us, and we were back in real life, natural light, and the rain. Surreality in Normality.

Sleepover was a wonderful experimental experience, helped by its ethereality – there, and then gone. Unique, shared.  It’s really satisfying to see, and participate in, a longer form theatre event (I’ve always wanted to go to one of Robert Lepage’s epics). The central dream conceit is very strong, a style helped along by The Basement’s inherent grunge. It would be interesting to see the concept in a bigger venue, with more variety of rooms, though by its nature it’s very site-specific. Perform it anywhere else and you would have a very different feeling show.

But how much value does this have? Yes, it’s a gimmick, it’s exclusive, and it’s a great deal of fun for both the actors and the audience (and quite a lot of effort and money no doubt to put on for 40 people – so thank you Auckland Theatre Company). However, if you allow me to get wanky for a paragraph or two, intentionally or unintentionally, Sleepover approached some rather interesting dramatic theories. There’s a lot more going on under the surface.

Theorist Artaud (he of ‘theatre of cruelty’ fame) wrote a lot about the audience, but never got much of a chance to put it into practise. He railed against artificial theatre that separates actor and audience by the footlights, and wanted “direct contact” between audience and the show, between actors and audience (sound familiar?). Artaud himself writes on the importance of dreams for theatre, arguing theatre needs to provide the audience with a “truthful distillation of dreams where its taste for crime, its erotic obsessions, its savageness, its fantasies, its utopian sense of life and objects, even its cannibalism, do not gush out on an illusory make-believe, but on the inner level” – all of which, one some level, inner or not, featured during Sleepover. While the show is a bit of pop-culture wink and a nod for the cool kids, Neels and his team canvas some darker psychological territory as we delay our own dreams and allow them to do the dreaming with us.

That feeling I got during the show, stronger after waking up in the morning? It reminded me of a quote from Grotowski (Artaud’s active successor, who experimented a great deal with audience participation):  “the rapport between the spectators and the actors approaches total communion”. And that wasn’t because we slept together.  It was a fascinating journey to go through – the opening gambit with the angry bar manager started with a weak storyline, and it took a while for the show to reveal itself, but once we were deeply within the dreams it was wholly involving. We became co-conspirators, influencers, mutually enjoying each other’s company.

Will Neels and his team get back together again for another Sleepover? I don’t know. But if they do, I encourage you to be first at the door, PJs on, for an experience unlike any other!

* We were offered this very same sex cake for supper. While I felt a little dirty eating it, I can reveal it was pretty good cake.

Sleepover was presented as part of Auckland Theatre Company’s Next Big Thing Festival on 13 and 14 July.

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