October 22, 2017

When turning your phone off at the theatre is bad manners #IwishIwasLonely @Battersea_arts

When you collect your ticket for I wish I was lonely at the Battersea Arts Centre you’ll be given a card and asked to write down your mobile number. That introduces the theme of the evening’s performance created by Hannah Jane Walker and Chris Thorpe. I wish I was lonely is a meditation on our willing subjugation to that omnipresent modern device, the mobile phone.

Theatre should be relevant and Battersea Arts Centre is great at engaging with contemporary issues. In the Council Chamber they currently have a comedic look at the Palestinian Israel question, and until March 15th in the Member’s Bar performance space you can see I wish I was lonely, a unique and well handled investigation into the power we have willingly handed to our mobile phones.

Not long ago mobile phones didn’t even exist. They still have the clumsy portmanteau name of a technology in its infancy – like horseless carriages they are defined by their relationship to something else. You don’t have to be that old to remember when if you wanted to keep busy at the bus stop you had to take up smoking. If you wanted to avoid all human contact on the tube you had to read the Evening Standard. Which – kids I swear it’s true –  you had to pay for. That small digital device in our pockets has changed our lives, and we have eagerly embraced it. But, ask Walker and Thorpe, is it for the better?

This production is most concerned with verbal content. The staging is a room of chairs, laid out randomly, pointing in different directions. At least the layout appears to be random, but possibly each chair is very precisely placed. The lighting has – I’m fairly sure – involved just turning on the lights. Scenery is non-existence, unless you include a remarkable perfect hand-drawn yellow circle.

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If ever there was a start that flagged up audience-participation is coming then it must be handing over your phone number. Especially when also – in what must be a first for British theatre – you’re asked to check that it is NOT in silent mode. It might get ‘cacophonous and confusing,’ Thorpe said, instructing us to answer our phones if they rang. There were thirty or forty of us in the room and the beeps and burbles of arriving emails and texts were already audible. Richard Griffiths, who once asked an audience member to leave after her phone rang whilst he was on stage would not have been able to cope.

Hannah and Chris then start a poetic dialogue that plays with our fears of losing our phones, the power we have invested in them, the way we feel when they are misplaced. They point out moments in history when the very absence of mobile phones has helped create breakthroughs. They ask whether it is actually possible to really miss anyone anymore, considering we always have them in our pocket, accessible for a five minute chat to kill time wherever we are.

They are not Ludditical extremists who believe in the destruction of new technology. They use mobile phones themselves. But they have noticed the surreptitious manner in which mobiles have infiltrated society. They ask us to consider our relationship with our mobile. Is it healthy? Is it a tool that improves life? Or, as with the groups of friends we’ve all seen in pubs, sitting together but all staring at their phones – has it taken over? Whilst appearing to make us all more connected is it destroying relationships? Have we entered a bizarre new world where Twitter followers we’ve never met are more important than the people sitting next to us?

With amusing experiments to force us to interact with the other humans in the room, the performance ends with an unusual challenge that leaves everyone chatting loudly with complete strangers.

The immersive, involving nature of the show could sound coercive or cringeworthy. But the two poets make sure it isn’t, walking between the audience and making it less lecturers and audience and more group of mates, albeit it mates you’ve never met before.

Go expecting something a little different and not only will you have a hoot and help to create a new poem, you’ll leave with a different attitude to your phone. Although to be honest I did tweet about the show straight afterwards. After all The Flaneur’s Twitter followers around the world need to know there’s a show in Battersea they ought to see.

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