West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 26 May, 1999

Periodically, the West Yorkshire Playhouse has staged productions which increased its reach among the crucial 18-25-year-old market by marrying theatre to some more "kicking" field, such as club or computer culture. These have ranged in quality from honourable near-misses (a stage adaptation of Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory) to the surpassingly dire (Irvine Welsh's dreadful You'll Have Had Your Hole). Now, Deadmeat incorporates both a club format and the Internet in one multimedia, semi-promenade production, and comes closer to unqualified success than I have seen in a long while. This is even more of a welcome surprise since it could so easily have been one man's folie de grandeur. Put it this way: it co-stars one Q (no relation to Desmond Llewelyn) in his own stage adaptation of his own cult novel, which he published himself.

Lest it sound like utter megalomania, Q shares the stage in Jude Kelly's production with the likes of Howard Saddler as club owner and hot computer artist Bones, Gary McDonald as an American undercover cop investigating a serial killer of paedophiles who seems to locate his victims via the Net, and video cameos by Nichola McAuliffe as the British investigating officer and Ian McKellen as Bones's art dealer (Q, I suspect, deliberately subverting clichéd assumptions about the sort of "dealer" likely to appear in a contemporary black story). Live mixing by DJ Virgo and drumming from Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen fill out the experience still more.

The biggest single pitfall in such a conglomeration would be ostentation about its own form: "Hey, look at us! We've got all this stuff in here! Isn't that great?" Deadmeat avoids this attitude almost entirely: the company simply get on with their interactions both onstage and with the video clips, with their live music and sequences of computer graphics. In fact, the creative team deliberately avoid going too high-tech, instead faking some sequences of Internet chat by marrying screen images and a separate soundtrack that do not quite match. Likewise, a certain amount of Net literacy is assumed on the part of the audience, but things never veer into geekdom. Perhaps the greatest relief for those of us who are just that bit too old is that the music, instead of being hard-edged techno or drum'n'bass, tends more towards the funkier, even swingbeat style.

It does not really matter that the plot careers from place to place: modern art, clubbing, love, murder, jealousy, the Net ("Internet child porn" is here more complex than a mere facile bandwagon), the ethics of vigilantism... covering, in a hipper and far less ponderous way, almost exactly the same narrative and thematic areas as David Bowie's 1995 concept album 1.Outside; for Deadmeat has no pretensions to being a well-made play. It does not matter that those actors called upon to perform raps or semi-raps early in the proceedings do so with only patchy flair. (It does not even matter that McKellen appears to be reading off the lines in his last video scene.) What is important is that it so totally lacks the air of self-congratulation and exclusivity that so bedevils almost all such theatrical experiments; like the best clubs, it caters for its clientele rather than making us work in order to feel we belong.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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