Review by Emma Green
We’re given a safe word before the performance of Paradise Lots begins.
The piece- like the best immersive performances- is built on a joint pact made between the makers and the audience. The makers create the conditions for you as an audience to explore new experiences and parts of their psyche that may remain unexamined in everyday life, and you as the audience agree to leave yourself open to play at the edges of what is uncomfortable. You both hope that you will leave feeling altered, more alive in body and spirit than when you entered. Risk equals reward, but you want to know you’re in safe hands first.
In Paradise Lots, we feel instinctively that we are in expert hands, for the whole duration of the piece.
Play and silliness is one of the key tools that Pony Cam uses in all their work, and it is used in Paradise Lots to create exactly those conditions that coax us into the experience. The safe word is ‘Pineapple’. Before entering into the performance space the bright-faced guide asks us warmly, cheekily, to yell it out three times, and transforms us into giggly, self-conscious idiots standing in the entrance to a car park in a Carlton back alley. Then we’re in- into a strange dystopian world that we are aliens to.
The performers are a chorus of around 14 young people, each unique and fascinating.
While the performance style is predominantly hyper real, it is infused at times with burlesque, buffon and clown. It’s mercurial and slightly disorientating- we feel like things are moving just below the surface of each performer, though it’s difficult to say just what. And then there are the long stretches of time where the audience is mostly ignored, left watching the performers loiter, mill about and amuse themselves. It makes voyeurs of us. It’s a strong power move too, in a piece that is heavy with feelings of power and powerlessness that is played out in the relationship of the performers to the audience. These periods of being left to wait are followed by sections of intimate scrutiny. There are times too where the performers’ attitude towards us is welcoming, and others when they hold us with contempt. It’s a heady mix.
It is raw theatre in its overall aesthetic- performance styles and set and costume design- but that rawness that sits atop very clever theatrecraft: delightfully creative use of the space and its architecture, rhythm, repetition, accumulation, surprise.
This is the third production of Paradise Lots. Each production has taken place in a different council area and had different casts, recruited predominantly from local communities. While retaining the central gestures of the piece, each production has been re-devised with the new casts and has varied considerably in its structure, assembly and use of the physical space.
In truth, compared to the first production in the Northland shopping centre (I didn’t see the second production in Dandenong and so can’t compare), this production felt less effective, less…. immersive. The more central location in the Trades Hall Fringe Hub makes it more difficult to totally remove ourselves from this world, and the more open playing spaces don’t allow for the same level of introspection.
Unlike the first two productions of Paradise Lots, the members of Pony Cam weren’t performing in this piece. But you can feel them in it- there’s the signature Pony Cam spirit that resides in each moment- sometimes teasing, sometimes goofy, sometimes satirical, sometimes defiant, sometimes raucous, sometimes tender- play is never far away.
Play is important because this show can ask you to go into some pretty dark places. Places of un-belonging, of othering, of uncertainty, of bullying and powerlessness, of the general darkness that can come with adolescence and its aftermath. I felt myself drawn into a world of split consciousness throughout the piece- embodied memories of my teenage years split with an acute awareness of being the age that I am now and the distance from the realities of being young person today.
Just like safe words and consent, after-care is essential in this kind of immersive performance. Heart pounding and blood pumping after passing through the last stage, we’re handed a cup of hot chocolate with a genuine smile from a performer and allowed the time to release the journey we’ve been in and reintegrate back into reality.
And then there’s the clean up. Show over, hundreds of pieces of coloured rubber litter the playing space, tiny acts of eco-terrorism. Pony Cam and the Paradise Lots lot, ever the considerate lover, take care of that for you.