Edinburgh review: Party Game (Wee Red Bar)

An immersive theatre experience from bluemouth inc. sees a surprise party turn sour

© David Monteith-Hodge

We’re all invited to a surprise party. It’s for Stephen – ah, Stephen, who everyone loves. Stephen, who’s obviously late! While we wait, the audience help put up bunting, pass round drinks, learn his favourite song with a live band.

It’s a fun immersive set-up – who doesn’t enjoy the fizzy moments before a surprise party? – and Canadian company bluemouth inc are initially adept at including the audience, moving us round, mixing us up, encouraging us to chat. We all get little party books too; hearing what a raconteur Stephen is, we’re encouraged to write our own stories in it, our favourite joke, to jot down the seven things we love the most. But be careful: if later you choose to get involved in a poker game, you might end up gambling with what you love.

Because Party Game isn’t as cheery as it looks – and Stephen isn’t such a nice guy after all. He plays with people’s love. He’ll gamble away your affection. Sure he enjoys telling jokes and stories, singing and dancing and skinny dipping, the life and soul – except he parties too hard. It got soulless. At this party, it may even get lifeless.

Because something horrible happens, and this celebration takes on a darker hue. We find out more about the situation in brief speeches or interactions between Stephen – played with appropriate magnetism and charm by Stephen O’Connell – and his devoted friend, wife and sister. Their toasts to him turn sour.

But it takes a while to piece even this bare-bones story together in what is often a frustratingly elusive show. Initially, Stephen seems like another manic guest, before he morphs into the subject. There are bizarre monologues from his friend (Dan Wild), a fellow actor, about the time the two of them worked on a production that toured by caravan, and they had to w*nk off the horses. Given we get so little character information or story in this show, it’s a bit of a mystery why this anecdote is given so much time.

The story is also largely told through movement sequences – Stephen’s tender-violent dances with his loved ones – that slice and spiral through the space, through the audience. These could be moving additions, but the story is too opaque to feel like it’s really finding new expression. Likewise, the audience interaction too often feels like a disjointed distraction rather than part of a cohesive whole – these sections are fun, and well executed, but don't have much resonance with a story that just feels too insubstantial. It’s not a party you’ll be clock-watching at, but nor is it one you're sorry to leave.

Party Game, in association with Traverse Theatre, runs at the Wee Red Bar until 20 August.

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