Promenade theatre is not usually my cup of tea. (This is where an audience is split into groups and follows the drama in different orders. It’s also more often than not, the kind of theatre where the performers get ‘all up in your face’). Swayed by the setting (three derelict rooms underneath the old Odeon on Pilgrim Street) and the time of year (it’s been specially created for Halloween), I’m happy – if that’s the right word – that I gave The Rooms a whirl.
The three ‘rooms’ branch off from the main stage at Alphabetti Theatre – a fairly new venue, so it’s brave of them to be embarking on such a lengthy run (it’s running until Saturday 31st October). The plays are monologues, delivered by three lost female souls; two of them gloomy and serious while the other is more darkly comic. Viewing them in the order I experienced was somewhat akin to eating a particularly macabre sandwich (bear with me)…
First up was Paper Walls by Nina Berry: the most intense and immersive of the trio. A woman (Arabella Arnotte) is manically scraping off flowery wallpaper as you enter her bedroom. Dressed in a night-gown and ranting to herself, you can’t help but feel you are intruding. Through the walls you can hear the other two (more raucous) plays, adding to the impression of a woman whose world is on the brink of collapse.
Set in a dingy bedsit, Dreaming is Free by Michael Brown is wonderfully atmospheric – an enigmatic story enhanced by eerily effective sound design and lighting. While Arnotte stayed, for the most part, glued to her mattress, here Jessica Johnson flits about with a manic intensity, getting right in the audience’s personal space. She repeats the mantra “If life is a sandwich it’s the filling that counts”, which brings us neatly to my culinary-themed middle serving.
David Raynor’s Meat Factory is less obvious spine-tingling fodder (despite the audience being offered blankets at the start). Our tour guide along the corridors of the eponymous establishment is a bolshy businesswoman (a wickedly funny Rosie Stancliffe as ‘Shirley Dobson OBE’) – and we, apparently, are a party of Tory MPs. Cue some surprisingly smart political satire and a winning streak of gallows humour. Oh, and free chicken nuggets.
The Rooms is not your conventional type of theatre – as, neither, is Alphabetti, with its winding corridors and Star and Shadow Cinema-esque vibe. You could do a lot worse, in the run up to Halloween, than joining one of the performances: it is ‘harrowing’ and ‘chilling’ in a way trick-or-treat simply isn’t. At one point I was handed a Union Jack and ordered to sing the national anthem – it’s testament to a job well done that I failed to mind one jot.