Friday, October 12, 2018

Date Show: After Dark – coupling happiness and heartbreak with novel settings and technology (Bullitt Hotel until Friday 19 October)

For some people the prospect of sitting still in a row of theatre seats for a couple of hours is not pleasant after spending a day sitting behind a desk in work. And sometimes a script is so complete and stuffed full of the playwright’s ideas that there’s no room to become engrossed in your own analysis of what’s playing out on stage in front of you.

Three’s Theatre Company’s Date Show format addresses both those problems by following a series of individuals and couples around Belfast’s Bullitt Hotel, allowing the audience to eavesdrop on their conversations, thoughts and encounters.

One moment we might be standing against the bar in the hotel lobby listening to a young man and woman discussing the same upcoming doom-laden anniversary with their friends. One’s on the phone, the other chatting to a work colleague. Both share their aspirations; but only the audience sense the clash of expectation. Then we hear other voices and our heads swivel to a table where an older couple are falling out while an overly tactile waitress fangirls over the man. Next to them sit a couple of hotel guests, slowly realising that the unfolding drama is connected with the clumps of headphone-wearing people standing five metres away staring in their direction.

Depending on the colour of your headset, you’ll be guided through one of three different routes through the drama, sometimes spilt off from the majority to watch another perspective of a couple’s development.

Building on the success of February’s Date Show in The MAC (which used every space in the building – including the downstairs toilets – except the two stages), new stories and characters have been developed by new as well as experienced writers in this bespoke set of interwoven performances in The Bullitt Hotel.

At times while you slowly follow a pair of hotel cleaners up the back stairs, polishing the bannister as they go, it can feel a lot less intense than traditional theatre. And then you cram inside a Room 118 before a couple burst in and try to unwrap each other as quickly as you’d rip open a cond…. hotel biscuit on the bedside table.

While the storytelling can be sparse, the technique employed is ambitious and sophisticated, at one point relying on the most subtle of glances to redirect the audience’s gaze four storeys up into the air to catch a glimpse of someone on the rooftop.

The ‘normal’ guests in the working hotel create a perfect backdrop. Thursday night’s The Greatest Showman party complete with bearded ladies and top-hatted circus ringmasters could have been part of the Date Show script. But it was a lone figure (Lynne Webber) leaning against the wall who we heard worrying through our headsets, as she psyched herself up for a first date. Mary Jordan was on top form as the Minnie Mouse-heeled psychic, Belfast’s gift to yoga and taking yourself too seriously!

Aisling Groves-McKeown and Michael Bingham make a great unhappy couple. Groves-McKeown fully connects with the audience with her demanding yet reasonable expectations, hope-filled yet realistic about her partner’s emotional distance. Bingham neatly moves his character from complacency to enthusiasm though never quite makes himself as vulnerable (at least in the version I saw) as his long-suffering other half. There’s also a sense that the venue, in this case a hotel, becomes a character too, opening itself up to the audience who examine aspects and facilities that they never knew existed.

As I leave, someone shouts over from one of the tables occupied by actors just an hour earlier. She’s having a drink with her partner. I nearly reach up for my headphones before remembering that this is real life. Stories just like the dramatised ones we’ve dipped into are still happening even after the cast and crew have hung up their costumes.

Jealousy, paranoia, dissatisfaction, live music and a beautiful dance to finish (Lizi Watt and Gerard Kelly) under the skillful control of artistic director Anna Leckey and her enthusiastic team. Seventeen creatives, one hotel, many stories, even more imaginations.

Staged with the support of Arts & Business NI as well as team at The Bullett Hotel, who knows were the next version will pop up. But in the meantime, catch Date Show: After Dark twice or more daily until Friday 19 October.

Lobby and staircase photos credit: Belfast Times

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