If you’re old enough to remember the 1980s when the Cold War was a threat and the juxtaposition of dance music and possibility of nuclear annihilation was a mainstay of popular entertainment (remember Nik Kershaw’s "I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me" or Ultravox’s "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes"?), Party Skills for the End of the World might feel familiar. It doesn’t seem exactly irrelevant now either, which is hardly a good thing. Either way, Nigel Barrett, Louise Mari and Abigail Conway have created a pretty impressive piece of immersive theatre in terms of scale, ambition and imagination.
The location is the imposing Shoreditch Town Hall; we’re invited to a cocktail party where we make our own martinis, barely registering the naff raffle prizes on offer (you’re given a ticket upon arrival, whether you want one or not); then the lights go out and all bets are off: a game of musical chairs swiftly turns into an uneasy struggle for survival that you can’t bow out of. What begins as quirky fun – which audience members are actors? Isn’t that an inventive use of a plastic bag? What the hell is going on here? – takes on a sinister hue until finally you’re required to imagine how it would be to experience the aftermath of a civilisation-altering event.
Part theatrical 'happening' and part installation, it is wholly unsettling. Much of the imagery is genuinely haunting (the endless parade of bedraggled, dust-covered dead-eyed survivors doggedly walking towards the light in their ripped apart, burnt out rags, for example) and if some sections drag on a bit too long, maybe a sense of miserable ennui is part of the point. Just when you think the bleakness has reached its apotheosis, a couple of drummers take to the stage and whip the crowd into a raving frenzy. This is duly followed by Barrett reciting a ten-minute litany of modern woes and worries that crosses the line from tedium to being strangely moving.
Marty Langthorne’s lighting, and Ben and Max Ringham’s sound score effectively add to the general unease, and some of Myrridin Pharo’s costume creations are grim masterpieces of imagination. The evening concludes with the audience/participants being led into a basement full of party activities like dummy musical instruments, tea and biscuits, and balloon animal making, and it’s pretty entertaining to observe how some of the crowd tear into it with gusto, while others are clearly too shell-shocked by everything else they’ve just experienced.
This is immersive theatre that delights and disturbs in equal measure, and you may find that it stays with you long after you’ve escaped from Shoreditch Town Hall. Apocalyptic fun!
Party Skills for the End of the World runs until 24 February.