Game (Almeida Theatre)

Mike Bartlett’s latest play offers a different theatrical experience

Jodie McNee and Mike Noble as Carly and Ashley
Jodie McNee and Mike Noble as Carly and Ashley
© Keith Pattison

Alongside his justly acclaimed prophetic satire, King Charles III, Mike Bartlett has written a trilogy of short, powerful plays that redefine the idea, quite literally, of theatre as a spectator sport.

Cock was a raw dissection of one man’s sexuality in a design (by Game designer Miriam Buether) that resembled both a cockpit and a theatre of anatomy. Bull set up a corrida in the corridors of power, with one man excluded from the firm, softened up by picadors and given the coup de grace by the matador boss.

And now we have a video game with a young married couple, Carly and Ashley – beautifully played by Jodie McNee and Mike Noble in Sacha Wares’s production – who are target practice for anyone who wants to take pot shots courtesy of the warden David (Kevin Harvey), a damaged former serving soldier.

You enter the Almeida and sit in one of four zones around the couple’s putative accommodation (there’s a housing crisis and they are of no fixed abode). Their life is a sideshow, with the "customers" (who include a drunken hen party and a disaffected middle-aged couple) lining up around the set, visible to the audience only on CCTV screens.

Each zone has a different perspective, the audience wearing headphones throughout, sitting on hard benches with army camouflage cushions, peering through a large rectangular aperture that opens and shuts, as if in a bird-watching hide.

Whenever Carly and Ashley are shot down they simply get up again and carry on, making breakfast, making love, taking a bath, arguing about their lives and domestic arrangements, later dealing with their young son Liam (Oscar Bennett on press night) who is also a target for the punters. Time is collapsed, unnaturally, as in a video game.

The hour-long piece is played twice nightly and thrice on Saturday. It’s one of the oddest rewrites of the contract between performance and audience I’ve seen, not the most original, but an interesting challenge. And you can ponder the life of a young couple starting out as a war zone, or a game of chance and mishap, the issue of civilian casualties and the injuries, physical and psychological, inflicted on the victims as much as on the perpetrators.

The offstage assassins include Georgina Beedle, Clare Burt and Daniel Cerqueira, whose talent we take as read on this occasion. The cast is selflessly helping Bartlett, Wares and Buether maintain this venue’s reputation for excitement and theatricality under Rupert Goold, whose colleague and resident director, I see in the programme, really is called Anthony Almeida. Every theatre should have its own brand name director, a Thomasina Traverse, perhaps, a Rona Royal Court, a Charlie Crucible or a Harry Haymarket.

Game runs at the Almeida Theatre until 4 April 2015