I sent someone to their death for a wheat stick covered in Marmite. I’ve often thought that theatre has taught me a great deal about what I know about the world, but while the experience of sitting in the dark often results in an emotional connection and sometimes catharsis—Oedipus marries his mum, kills his dad and puts out his eyes so we can experience the journey without actually having to blind ourselves—it seldom makes you examine yourself and your own behaviour. Or reminds you of the consequences of something you have done.
But immersive theatre company Riptide’s The Lucky Ones does just that. It's a piece that combines phone calls, post, messaging, emails, questionnaires, videos and puzzle solving with a narrative, one which sends you on a secret mission into the heart of a shady organisation, and from London to Leeds to South America. “Thank you for doing the right thing,” read the gift note that came with the parcel that was unexpectedly delivered to my door late one night after The Lucky Ones had finished. But did I do the right thing? When I opened the box and saw the Twiglets, I felt a little queasy.
The point about The Lucky Ones is that it gives audiences the chance to make choices.
Photo by Dom Smith.
“I hate theatre that says people have a choice that’s not really there,” says Alex Palmer, the founder of the Leeds based company, Riptide. He says The Lucky Ones comes with multiple narratives and potential different endings and outcomes will depend on whether you are doing it solo like I did, or whether you are playing as a team. Like a lot of stuff online at the moment it has a very strong game playing element, and although Riptide is currently under commission to a number of theatres including Leeds Playhouse, Cast in Doncaster, Oldham Coliseum and Sheffield theatres, Palmer doesn’t think it is necessarily aimed at a theatre audience but rather those “who enjoy narrative but who don’t want to go to a playhouse and sit in the dark for two hours.”
That includes Palmer himself. He studied drama at Exeter University (also the alma mater of Punchdrunk but says that by his third year in 2015, “I was bored with traditional theatre and where it so often took place.” The final piece he made at university was an hour long walk around Exeter inspired by TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and delivered via phone. Riptide’s current raft of shows also includes Sonder, a binaural walk through Leeds that takes its name from John Koenig’s The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which coined the word to mean the realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.
It’s a concept that fascinates Palmer, who on graduating worked on two significant immersive experiences, You Me Bum Bum Train and Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, before moving to Leeds to set up Riptide. He was, he says:
“Interested in making more durational work that you experience alongside your life. Something that lasts a month has a different relationship with you and a different place in your life than something that lasts two hours.” Because of lockdown The Lucky Ones in its current iteration is delivered from a distance, but an earlier version of the show had audiences following the online clues but also interacting in real spaces around Leeds. That’s where Palmer’s heart lies.
“I am interested in the blurring between fiction and reality,” says Palmer, “finding that golden moment which might lead you as an audience member to a café and a meeting with someone from this fictional world in a real space where nobody else around you knows what you are both doing there. In the longer term our ambition is always to make theatre that crosses both worlds, but The Lucky Ones was a way to engage with audiences across the country in their own living rooms during lockdown.”
In its current form The Lucky Ones can’t quite deliver that secret thrill that I’m prepared to guess is part of the other version, but it is nonetheless genuinely surprising, and at its best it reminds me of the work of other companies, artists and projects (always I think a good sign) including Punchdrunk, of course, but also Blast Theory’s notorious Kidnap project from over 20 years ago, the work of Coney and the work of Sophie Calle.
I can’t wait to be able to experience one of the company’s shows in the flesh as they explore further the idea that something you do online has consequences in the real world, and the possibility that lots of people can be in the same environment or space but with each of them experiencing different and multiple narratives. It is an interesting extension of what Punchdrunk have already done, but taken further and across different platforms.
Photo by Dom Smith.
Did I love every moment of The Lucky Ones? Not at all. There were times during the week when I feared it might become a fulltime job that I didn’t have the time to fit in around my work, caring responsibilities and the fact I sometimes just want to just flop in front of Netflix and not have to solve a cipher. But even at the moments when I was most hating it, I always appreciated it cleverness and could see the potential of the Riptide approach, which marks them out as a company to watch.
Palmer reckons that quite a lot of the pre-recorded stuff that theatre has been putting online during lockdown has been pretty dull.
“It has probably fulfilled a need for some theatre audiences, but I know there is a whole audience out there who want more, and who are demanding more, and who are open to hybrid experiences which are open enough to let you find your own way through and play and experience the piece in your own way. However you play there is a reward.” Even if it’s a box of Twiglets that come with the bitter tang of betrayal.
You can participate in The Lucky Ones between 20 Mar - 26 Mar or 22 May - 28 May. Tickets and info here.