I was aware that it had been some time since I had caught up with the marathon 12 Plays In 12 Months project of Nottingham group Chronic Insanity. I headed to their website and I’m glad I looked when I did as a number of new pieces had been added, one of which was due to be imminently retired, so just in time then. It also transpired that they had been curating their own two day festival called Puncture The Screen and were making plans to participate remotely in the forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe festival – they obviously don’t feel they had enough to do already. As ever with the group’s work it is best to expect the unexpected and two other new pieces did not disappoint in this regard.
PNOC.io is an interactive experience which plunges you into the heart of a dilemma. Taking its cue from the well-known tale of Pinocchio it raises questions about the nature of humanity and our ability (necessity??) to empathise with aspects of Artificial Intelligence. The setup is that you are a newly appointed Interface Tester for tech giants Stromboli and are being put through your paces on an induction course helmed by cheery Kyle Palmer – though he gets less cheery as events proceed. You are introduced to PNOC and set a number of interactive tests by various “doctors” to get you used to communicating with the talking head. Although actually it turns out that he/they/it – the pronouns are deliberately obscure – are testing you. And there’s an even bigger test coming as PNOC breaks ranks and appeals to you directly for assistance in returning to original creator known only by the code name GP2O (say it quickly!). So, there is the central dilemma. Do you believe the claims of mega corporation Stromboli although there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they have their own nefarious purposes? Or do you side with PNOC who isn’t even human to bring their morally reprehensible activities crashing down? Your responses will determine a particular pathway and there are multiple endings depending on the choices you make.
It’s a clever premise which is well executed by a cast who convince in their roles as employees who have one eye on keeping their jobs even if they know inwardly that what they are doing is questionable. In one version of the denouement there’s a particularly convincing argument put forward by Abbi Davey as Dr Mason and throughout Jack Henderson as trainer Kyle manages to suggest that all is not quite right even as he smiles through the concern. PNOC is voiced well though there’s no end credit for who’s responsible. My money is on director and Chronic Insanity’s artistic director Joe Strickland as they pop up as GP2O this would also make artistic sense. It took me about 45 minutes to work my way through the whole scenario, but I did run back over some of the variations so can confirm that there are some radically diverging outcomes. Released through Camden People’s Theatre, it is an enjoyable and challenging piece – and I can say that without my nose starting to grow!
A somewhat different approach to material is taken by the second piece in that it is totally audio based. Red Breast is both typical of its genre while also being something of a radical departure. There are four voices which form two pairs – an older couple, Alister and Vivian and a younger, Alex and Lily. At first there seem to be two separate narratives being developed with no connection between the duos, but gradually subtle referencing and hints start to bring the two disparate halves into a unified whole. A fifth character, Rosie, who is talked about but who we never hear from starts to emerge as the link between the two couples. As I don’t want to drop a massive plot spoiler I’ll say no more at this point. Throughout run themes of birth, death, illness, celebration and communication – it is a densely packed experience.
The convoluted and intriguing construction of the script by Lotty Holder raises the level of interest but also means that concentration is paramount. Each of the quartet played winningly by Evangeline Osbon, Jack Dillon, Elizabeth McNally and Melvyn Rawlinson, speaks individually in short bursts, generally in pairs though not necessarily the generational pairs established at the start. These continuous monologues then start to cross reference each other – a word here, a paralleled or juxtaposed situation there, a shared piece of symbolism everywhere. In the latter stages there is one shared piece of dialogue which draws the various story threads together before giving way once gain to individual reflections. What emerges is an intricate and poetically elegiac tapestry about the power of family and connection and at the end I went straight back to the start and played it through again finding even more richness and depth than before. If you want powerfully challenging audio drama, then this is it.
PNOC.io and Red Breast are available from the Chronic Insanity website – click here (the first is only available for one more day)
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