Various (seen at the Albany, London SE8)
26 July
, 2007

Young company Ampersand Media will not get rich if Headlines packs out: the maximum audience is four at any one time, and it is in any case free. Each day they choose a current story from the press, and work up a dramatic treatment of it for that afternoon's and evening's audience drop-in sessions. In each of four tents (which may be visited in any order), one punter meets one performer playing one character in the story. The day I visited, the subject was a forthcoming TV documentary about a couple the husband of whom suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and which includes the moment of his death. The previous day, it had apparently been the trial of actor and comedian Chris Langham for child sex offences.

To be honest, the four performers are at root engaging in little more than character exercises: they have worked out an identity, a viewpoint and a basic range of things to say, and improvise the rest. It is the interaction with the audient, singular, that makes it theatre, and in particular the one-to-one nature of that interaction. Because it depends entirely on the way one approaches these encounters. You can be almost as passive as an ordinary theatre spectator, or jump in with the performers. Since my first encounter was with a supposed petition-seeker for Mediawatch, I couldn't resist a verbal tussle (mainly asking how she could know what a programme was like and what its effects would be before it had even been seen). After that, it was highly discomfiting to have a dying man (not of Alzheimer's) explain his funeral plans to me as a pretended friend, though a little simpler than that for me to "be" the film-maker in conversation with the couple's carer. By the end, I was taking an equal part as the widow talking with her once estranged daughter; I don't think the actress expected a hug of reconciliation at the end.

To a very great extent, what you get out of the project depends on what you invest in it; what it forcefully demonstrates is that theatre is a transaction rather than a simple send-and-receive process.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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