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Review: Phobiarama (LIFT)

Dutch theatre maker Dries Verhoeven invites you aboard his political ghost train in this immersive piece for LIFT

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
© Willem Popelier

Although it has arrived in the UK under the aegis of the London International Festival of Theatre, Dries Verhoeven's Phobiarama isn't really theatre. The Dutch performance artist has created, well, a piece of Dutch performance art. Stuffed inside a large marquee near King's Cross, Phobiarama offers an unsettling, at times sh*t-ya-pants scary rollercoaster through the anxieties, neuroses and prejudices of contemporary (and, let's face it, white) European society. The show's name is emblazoned above the marquee in lightbulbs, like a candy floss stall at a circus. But this ride ain't about having fun.

Except, actually, it is quite good craic. You arrive, are split into pairs, and ushered inside, where you find a dodgem car with the steering wheel removed waiting for you. In you hop, and off you go, dragged along a winding, circular loop for forty minutes, corridors branching off all around you, pillars offering suspicious hiding places. As you trundle on, static-filled TVs blare out snippets of recent political speeches. An Islamic extremist railing against western imperialism. Tony Blair (I think) complaining about Brexit. Farage doing his bit about immigrants.

And then (spoiler alert), the bears start appearing. Yep, bears. At first, you just catch a glimpse of them, lurking behind a doorway. But as the ride picks up pace and Corbyn gives it the big one about austerity over the sound system, the bears get bolder, until they're really in your face, looming towards you, claws bared. And they're not cute, cuddly Paddington types. They've got a lurid, Donnie Darko-ish freakiness to them.

After bears, it's clowns (gulp). Horrible, leering, It-style clowns gambolling grimly towards you as your dodgem changes gear and rattles backwards round the course. It's simultaneously hilarious fun and utterly, utterly terrifying.

There is, though, a point to all this. Verhoeven is doing his Adam Curtis impression, riffing on how a society kept in a constant state of tension is a society easily manipulated. On how (white) people can be hoodwinked into fearing the "other", be it bear, clown, immigrant, or refugee. On how politicians capitalise on that. It's a point that's been made many, many times before – there are heavy, almost derivative echoes of Jamal Harewood's The Privileged and Punchdrunk's It Felt Like A Kiss – but rarely with such thrilling gall.

Despite not really being theatre, Phobiarama is right at home with LIFT. It's edgy, provocative, and a wee bit (okay, a lot) pretentious. But that's no bad thing. As with most of these things, it's not really about the show, it's about the conversations that you have afterwards. That's if you can have a conversation after having a maniacal clown sprint after you as you hurtle backwards in a brake-less repurposed dodgem.