Immersive theatre is billed as a thrilling and intimate alternative to traditional drama, but it smacks of triviality and low-level fascismby Michael Coveney / August 19, 2010 / Leave a comment
You Me Bum Bum Train takes audience participation to the limit
Not long ago, the audience in a theatre was there to watch a play. Nowadays, the audience is the play, or at least the protagonist in a production that is animated by the paying customer.
Recently I visited an abandoned electricity board building in Bethnal Green, east London, signing away my possessions and jacket on the door. My loafers were gaffer-taped to my socks; I was placed in a wheelchair; pushed through swing doors; and berated about the bad form of an American football team. Two seconds later, I was in a locker room, delivering a pep talk while 15 hunks glowered at me through facepaint and helmet guards.
And that was just the start. Over the next 40 minutes, I entered a tunnel lying on my back for an MRI scan, emerging through a sushi restaurant and a lost luggage department and then (still on my back) into the undercarriage of a car, and next a garage where I had to explain why the car wasn’t ready.
Hustled unceremoniously onwards, I gave a briefing on the BP oil spill, took questions on my shares in the company, delivered a sermon at a gospel meeting (I was in the wheelchair again and stupidly omitted to rise out of it on a tide of hallelujahs), and signed copies of a book I had published on “Happiness,” assuming the demeanour of a professional grouch.
By this time the grouchiness came easily. I had been passed through a moshing, baying crowd, been shoved in a cupboard while “robbing” a sleeping woman (who woke up) and sent down a chute to a rubbish tip. My humiliation was completed at a karaoke bar where a gameshow host made me sing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to a small, uninterested audience.
Of course, everything I hated about the show You Me Bum Bum Train—the bullying, the coerciveness, the physical rough-house, the illusion of “empowerment”—is everything many people and some critics loved. The title is also the name of the company, which has been doing similar shows for some years; this latest one was co-presented by the Barbican Centre in July.
In a way, YMBBT is the ultimate experience in “immersive” theatre, a term which also embraces the work of Punchdrunk. The company’s version of The Masque of the Red Death left audiences to roam the…