As a whole, the blend of audience-participation and horror is by no means an extensive genre in most contemporary theatre scenes. We are used to sitting politely in the dark, laughing at the right times, clapping at the end and only leaving our seats at the interval. However, Becoming a Jackal, part of The New Theatre: Uncut, is an entirely different experience. Written and directed by current student Alex Mawby, the plot seems simple enough on the surface; the disturbingly manic Jack (Matt Miller) abducts his three old school ‘friends’; arrogant Rich (George Holder), aggressive Gabby (Laura Gallop) and heartthrob Lola Rose (Emma Clark) in order to seek revenge for his childhood miseries. Throw in some gory torturing, some aptly physical child play flashbacks and dimmed spotlights, and a piece of theatre is created that would usually just be stored in the sadistic guilty pleasure department that usually contains the Saw movies and Stephen King novels. But the staging and direction of the play completely changes its meaning and places you in an uncomfortably surreal environment, unique to most other theatre experiences.
On simply arriving at the performance you know all is not well. Jack is stood waiting for his audience at the back of the Portland building, shaking hands and politely introducing himself to each member of the growing crowd. I am asked what my interests and hobbies are and shamefully become a giggling wreck along with my friend. But Miller stays fully committed to his character, his eyes boring into yours, the soft voice conveying delight at the turnout. We are all led down in the performing arts studio, Miller all the while in character, insisting that we all “meet his friends”.
The set is simple but effective; there is no need for a clutter of unnecessary artefacts, with the audience sat in the round. Jack proudly presents us to a large bed with dirtied sheets; Lola Rose is flung across it and Gabby is perched on top of a high stack of blocks, both girls limp like rag dolls. Rich is introduced later; in a startling discovery to the audience, he sits amongst us and cries out a quarter of the way through in desperation. Cue uncertain laughter. But the audience participation is not quite over yet; members of the audience are dragged up to become part of the ‘choo-choo-train’ of Rich’s 7th birthday and are invited to dance with the actors during the flashback of their secondary school prom night. This involvement is light-hearted and comical, but at other moments, it darkens. Jack encourages us to clap and chant Rich’s name as he forces him to rummage in a box full of syringes and broken glass to find the key to escape their prison.
All of the cast give chillingly twisted and uninhibited performances of their characters; the alter-ego of the spiteful childhood bully is always present within Gabby, Lola Rose and Rich. However, some of the reactions to the horror of their abduction seem jarringly heightened and so the distinction between the eerie reality created by Jack and the surreal world of the physical theatre flashbacks become unclear.
Considering the piece was entirely student written and produced, Becoming a Jackal is refreshingly original and its audience participation would thrive in an ‘Edinburgh Fringe’ environment. Even though the thought of an actor having direct eye contact with us can make the usual audience member squirm uncomfortably, I think it’s time to break through the fourth wall. Just sitting in the theatre and obeying the etiquette is starting to get a bit old!