City Sketch burst onto the Hull culture scene on Monday night with a unique theatre experience — three plays for the price of one. From the creative minds of Ensemble 52’s Richard Vergette, Andrew Pearson and Dave Windass, and part of Heads Up Festival, City Sketch is something different. Conceived upon the idea of a site-specific piece of theatre — taking place in a converted office block The Other Space on Alfred Gelder Street — the plays tell the stories of seven seemingly ordinary individuals interlinked by their workplace. These plays can be viewed in any order, as each is acted out simultaneously around the building.
The first slice of the theatre sandwich the audience watched was centred around the boardroom. In character from the get-go, a stone-faced, black-leather-gloved lady picked out audience members at random to participate in the play. The atmosphere was tense as the rest of the audience indulged on free wine and slowly trickled to their seats. Music started, and we were introduced to the characters: power hungry Sarinda, the conniving corporate CEO portrayed by Sarah Naughton; Laurinda (Caroline Traveller), the back-stabbing, right-hand woman — and company assassin; and Donald, the confrontational and not-at-all-what-he-seems ex-CEO, played by David Westbrook. The performances were gripping and, as a result, had the audience enamoured.
Following the performance, Traveller told me that there was a plan if one of the audience members decided to react, “If one of the participating audience members decided to improv, Sarinda would’ve just cut them off. They wouldn’t have been able to finish their sentence.”
Afterwards, we were relocated to the first floor, where we were greeted by torches and hi-vis jackets (the second play being about nighttime security guards Stan and Andy, played by Stan Heywood and Tim Bettridge, respectively). When the audience took their seats, I realised how effective and refreshing it is to interlink three plays — CCTV cameras projected onto the walls behind Stan and Andy show the boardroom we had just vacated, and the office we would migrate to for the final play.
The final play took place inside an actual office room — and it was by far the most moving piece of the night. A play about an affair between two colleagues, and it not being as black-and-white as we’re first meant to believe. Set behind a glass-panelled wall, as if characters were completely separated from those watching them, it felt much more intimate between the two characters. Rachel Dale, as the passionate Amy, and Ben Tinniswood, as her boss-slash-lover Matt, delivered fantastically emotional performances. The highlight was the twist, which most definitely had the desired effect on the audience.
This immersive, interactive and subjective theatre was wholly unusual, and wholly enjoyable. “It’s a different experience when you do immersive theatre,” says Vergette, who wrote the ‘Office Affair’ play, “It’s not as if the audience members are peeping Tom’s… you can experiment with the audience.” Reinventing theatre is a tall order, but somehow, Ensemble 52 managed to do that here. Marrying a sublime cast with original and imaginative scripts, City Sketch performed brilliantly. This innovative and quirky creation paves a new way for theatre-makers, and with local theatre like this, it’s a no brainer that Hull is a City of Culture.
City Sketch ran from Sept 23 – Sept 28, 2013