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The Unbuilt Room
Published on Friday, 13 May 2011

4 stars

The Nightingale (venue website)
12-14, 19 May, 10:15pm-10:35pm, 10:45pm-11:05pm; 15, 20 May, 8:45pm-9:05pm, 9:15pm-9:35pm, 9:45pm-10:05pm, 10:15pm-10:35pm, 10:45pm-11:05pm; 6, 8 May, 9:45pm-10:05pm, 10:15pm-10:35pm, 10:45pm-11:05pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Suitable for age 15+ only.

If you’ve ever typed “GO EAST. GET LANTERN”, you’ll be right at home in The Unbuilt Room.  If you haven’t, you’ll spend the first few minutes with little idea what’s going on.  But this experience is all about discovery – discovery of an environment, and discovery of its rules – and as you explore the alternate reality of an imagined Nightingale theatre, you’ll slowly begin to appreciate just what it is you have to do.


In essence, it’s a puzzle – not a philosophical conundrum to debate over a pint, but the sort of intellectual puzzle you just get in and solve.  There’s an element of storytelling, although the emotionless narrator isn’t exactly generous with his prose.  There’s room for creative diversions and self-made humour.  And if you do know what will happen if you say the word INVENTORY, you’ll be amused by the in-joke of delivering this old-fashioned art-form in an even more anachronistic way.

Most of all, though, it’s an experiment in group dynamics.  The show’s bare-bones set-up is designed to protect the weak, so that clever-clogs like me who recognize the scenario can’t storm ahead and ruin it all.  But the rules of the game aren’t as strict as they seem; there are ways to work together, and I took as much pleasure from helping my new-found partners as they seemed to take in learning the way.

Except, that is, for one little thing.  After 20 short minutes, there’s a bang on the door – and the narrative, wherever it’s got to, stops.  It’s like the video which cuts off on schedule, just after the match has gone to extra time; it turned the promise of an imminent reward into a bitter disappointment.  And it didn’t happen because some evil scriptwriter planned it that way, but just because an unseen clock ticked to zero. 

And that, I think, is The Unbuilt Room’s great weakness: it’s highly interactive, but actor Seth Kriebel is the one man who can’t get involved.  Demoted to an automaton by the rules of the game, if you mess things up – or the rest of the audience messes them up for you – there’s nothing he can do to make your experience a positive one.  It’s a powerful reflection of the frustrations of life, and a fascinating revival of a unique style of storytelling.  But is it well-crafted theatre?  On that, I’m not so sure.

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