One of the more fascinating and artistically ground breaking pieces I saw online during lockdown was User Not Found which came from the innovative Dante Or Die. This certainly pushed the boundaries of what was then possible taking what had been the company’s generally site specific work into the realms of the internet and onto our mobile phones. So, it was with a sense of keen anticipation that I approached their latest piece entitled Odds On which is currently on a “digital tour”. It’s a piece about the world of online gambling and its effects on an individual who gets sucked into a vortex and only narrowly avoids disaster. Having revelled in their earlier piece, and noting that Tim Crouch was on board as the project’s dramaturgist, I expected it to be out of the ordinary – and it was. In truth it’s more a film rather than a theatrical piece but it’s sufficiently hybrid enough in its nature to warrant inclusion on this blog – and Dante Or Die is predominantly a theatrical company even if they have assisted in the stretching of that particular term.
Felicity is newly retired from her work in a GP surgery and finds herself with rather more time on her hands to become Plutus 57, her online identity for playing the addictive gambling app Pearls Of Fortune. Of course she wins at first; that’s how it’s structured. However, it’s not as easy to get the winnings out as it is to put stake money in and with the presence of “friendly” online personal adviser Cora looming ever larger, Felicity soon finds herself taking risks that she would never previously have contemplated. Her relationship with her partner becomes increasingly fraught, money earmarked for her daughter’s IVF treatment soon disappears and as her addiction spirals the wellbeing of grandson Noah hangs precariously in the balance. It is, sadly, an all too familiar tale, especially in recent years, and serves as a stark warning about how a seemingly innocent pastime can cause havoc in the most well regulated of families.
Writer/directors Daphna Attias and Terry O’Donovan first conceived of setting a piece about gambling in the physical location of a betting shop but developed it into an online scenario when Covid made this an impossibility. This is a fortuitous change of direction for it gives the piece a more universal feel. It’s also interesting that they have chosen a middle aged professional woman as their central character – research has shown that gambling apps often target that particular market and that the “guilty pleasure” aspect of the experience is central to the addiction taking hold. Fiona Watson shows us Felicity’s underlying fragility which makes her descent into the enticingly undersea world fully believable. Validation in the shape of instant rewards propel her to take ever increasing risks and ignore the alarm bells which sound throughout. The final potential disaster is alluded to indirectly rather than shown but becomes all the more powerful for that. The open ending gives some hope for the future. I can see this piece being a useful educational resource for those caught in the net of an online gambling addiction.
The real artistic coup of the piece is to mix in some first rate animation from John Brannoch; possibly a first for online theatre. Brannoch has created a fully believable “gambling app” complete with day glo colours, enticing pop up messages and cute sound effects all fused together to lull the user into the false sense that it’s all just a bit of harmless fun. And at points in the narrative the experience becomes interactive as we are also instructed to hit that “spin” button. Indeed, just like Felicity, our experience cannot progress until we do so. This puts us in the same position as the central character and is a clever way to replicate that urge to keep going, even as logic tells us that we’re on a one way path to nowhere.; to extend their own watery metaphor the message is don’t get hooked! It’s a very clever piece of work that also operates well as a piece of film/theatre and shows that once again Dante Or Die has an excellent grasp of the possibilities of online drama. Strongly recommended.