Straight On ‘Til Morning

Ruckus Poetry Slam have chosen to take the well known story of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and present it through an interactive, immersive experience. Atop the highest floor of The Foundry record store and bar, a large group of strangers enter ‘Morning’: what seems to be a mental institution for young patients. The focus is on recognisable characters, Peter and Wendy, with other guests such as a magical Tinkerbell and (presumably) a doctor, who lurks the hallways threatening to spoil the fun like Hook, appearing occasionally.
Straight On ’Til Morning, in theory, sounds interesting. The premise is loaded with potential, and the choice of venue is excellent with the creepy old building dressed as an institution. What that institution was, however, was always a little vague and never properly explained. At times, sitting in a carpeted room filled with bunk beds and children’s toys, it seemed closer to an orphanage. However, the “Dr.” figure lurking the halls suggested something more unsettling for the “children”. The only time I was sure this piece was discussing mental illness was when the actress playing Peter had her excessively melodramatic meltdowns, exposing her turmoil and reminding us that she only sees Tinkerbell in her mind.
Upon arrival we were all given tags with our names on it to wear and a card that would give us a “complementary” drink (most likely included in the steep $30 ticket price, not really complementary). The group was then split up into smaller clumps and guided up countless flights of stairs to the main performance space. At this point I felt concerned for any patrons who weren’t warned about the amount of stairs or the forced separation from those they had arrived with. My group and I, after being separated from our companions, were forced to pant our way up a never ending staircase with Tinkerbell constantly hurrying us with dance moves and extreme closeness that was more off-putting than whimsical.
The patrons are warned on the website that this show will contain dark themes, foul language and that minors must be accompanied by a guardian. The show does not warn us, however, that the audience (even the hired photographer trying to work) will be forced to play games such as hide and seek, charades and marco polo and when I say forced, I do mean forced, audience members were subjected to peer pressure from the actors to participate. These immersive qualities, whilst perhaps acceptable in small doses, were exploited to cover the lack of a depth and original plot.
After audience members were torn away from each other, shoved in and out of rooms, and up and down stairs before ever being able to truly engage with each segment, it became clear that this work was more about spectacle than it was about story. The one moment where I did feel willing to engage with the immersive experience was when I was singled out and asked to enter a bathroom alone, stare at my own pupils in the mirror in almost complete darkness, and remain there for what was supposed to be two minutes. After this two minutes became closer to fifteen, I was left feeling confused and abandoned, an odd feeling in a show that encourages its audience to place their trust in the “generous staff”. After it became painfully obvious that I had been forgotten, I wondered if this was intentional. I considered whether this was a technique to physically expose patrons to the confronting experience of being institutionalised and isolated. This possible explanation was destroyed, however, when the sounds of actorsshouting lured me out of the dark bathroom to discover the entire audience and cast performing a climactic scene in the hallway.
After being forced to miss the most important piece of the disjointed plot, I came to the conclusion that this experience would be far more effective if the patrons were kept track of enough to always end up together for crucial monologues from the focal characters. The fact that the people guiding us throughout the space were also performersin character proved to me that this show was in desperate need of a stage manager for patrons to put their trust in. The stage manager may have been the young actress in a believably historical blue nurse uniform, but this was never explained properly and her constant disappearances left patrons at the mercy of actors who were equally as vague. The actors did extremely well to maintain character, however nothing was done to keep their audience comfortable.
The plot was essentially Peter trying to come to grips with his mental illness and Wendy avoiding growing up. What would otherwise be a 10 minute narrative was extended for an agonising hour and a half. The excessive length of the production was filled with patrons being pressured to play childhood games with strangers, even if they tried to refuse, and being herded through the space any time they began to actually engage with the content.
The Peter Pan/mental illness concept has definitely been done before. I had hoped, though, that the immersive aspect and poetic language of this production would save a premise that has already been flogged to death. I was, however left disappointed. Overall Straight On ‘Til Morning shows potential through its use of space, interaction and design but there needs to be a stronger focus on the safety of patrons. With a restructuring of the tour, a honed in focus on the story, and a stronger hold over the comfort and safety of their patrons, this work could be developed into a more unique and captivating experience.
– Written by Rhumer Diball May 14th 2016.
THUR May 12th – SAT 21st MAY 2016.
Originally Published for Anywhere Festival.

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