Department Story

Cathy Carson, Jan Carson, Roisín O’Donnell
Big Telly
Royal Avenue, Belfast

Niamh McGrath, Cillian Leneghan, Chris Robinson and Nicky Harley in Department Story Credit: Neil Harrison
Laura Hughes in Department Story Credit: Neil Harrison
Chris Robinson, Cillian Leneghan, Niamh McGrath and Nicky Harley in Department Story Credit: Neil Harrison
Nicky Harley, Chris Robinson and Niamh McGrath in Department Story Credit: Neil Harrison

Presented as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, Big Telly’s site-specific Department Story can’t be faulted for ambition, with promenaded live performances to flesh-and-blood audiences simultaneously streamed online where viewers are able to navigate their own way through the production via six screens.

Judging by the often raucous audience reactions, the live experience, in a vacant store in the middle of Belfast city centre’s prime shopping district, is considerably more satisfying than that for online participants. At a distance, it appears more successfully immersive in person than it can deliver on the interactive involvement claimed for remote audiences.

Devised by Jack Hardiker and Zoe Seaton, Department Story is described as “the testbed performance for a new digital theatre platform called Remote Control”. Technical shortcomings do neither the show nor the platform any favours, severely hampered by erratic lighting levels, unfocussed sound that distorts, blooms and fades impenetrably away to render speech virtually unintelligible, with video (both fixed and mobile iPhone cameras) distanced and statically dull, or close-up and distractingly frenetic.

A lack of clear signposts from the dedicated but unidentifiable ‘personal shopper’-cum-guide or on the console dashboard leads to a rather chaotic introduction and, from there, to an incoherent experience, as comments by other viewers in the ‘chatbox’ facility seemed to corroborate.

From what can be gleaned from the murk of the show’s disconcertingly disorderly opening, the trigger for subsequent events, that veer between the spooky and the shambolic, is a phone call announcing the titular store’s abrupt closure. What follows isn’t easily followed via the clumsy navigation of locations and camera angles provided online.

Set-piece scenes involving a pair of possessed dancing shoes and revelling Cossacks are frantically overplayed and overextended. The commitment of the somewhat marooned-seeming five-strong cast is admirable but poorly focused, resulting in an exhausting amalgam of the incongruous, the tedious and the confusing.

Three writers are credited—‘spoken word performer’ Cathy Carson and rising star authors Jan Carson and Roisín O’Donnell—but all are rendered anonymous by director Zoe Seaton's distracting reliance on circus-top excitability.

If Seaton stumbles with this uneasy blend of live and online theatre, her credentials as an innovative and imaginative director remain intact. There is potential in Department Story’s curiously appealing concoction of pantomime and the macabre, but it requires greater sophistication, sharper focus and a clearer sense of point and purpose if it is to succeed.

Reviewer: Michael Quinn