Double Life—A VR Musical
Lyricist Leo Mercer and composer Stephen Hyde
Leo & Hyde
Whitworth Locke, Manchester
Leo & Hyde enjoy pushing boundaries; their first musical The Marriage of Kim K daringly merged high and low culture blending opera with reality television. Immersive theatre, where the play is staged around the audience, is a familiar concept. Virtual immersive theatre is, however, something new.
Guy (Craig Hunter) lives a Double Life. Although he is good at and enjoys his work as a graphic designer, he finds the constant demands of clients to produce unrealistically ‘attractive’ images restricting. In his personal life, he is overly aware his body does not match the idealised physiques which he ironically helps create and, although he enjoys dancing, regards himself as clumsy. Virtual reality offers the chance to express himself artistically and to dip his toe into the dating world without emotional risk.
Double Life—A VR Musical is based upon Leo & Hyde’s Guy, staged as a musical and later re-imagined as a digital entertainment. Stephen Hyde’s score is recorded, not live, and is low-key pop / ambient, relaxing and mellow rather than energetic.
The concept behind Double Life is that, while Craig Hunter performs live as Guy on stage, the audience gets the chance to share the character’s experiences in the virtual world. Headsets, earphones and controls are provided, and tech support (no, really) is on hand if needed. Just as well as, at one point, I found myself in a palatial penthouse with the Northern Lights in the distance thinking Guy must really have gone up in the world. Removing the VR equipment, it is surprising to find oneself in a different physical location than at the start, having moved while interacting with the virtual images. However, as the opportunity for the audience to interact with the VR world (via handsets) increases, the relationship between the VR images and the storyline decreases.
The audience shares three of Guy’s VR experiences with graphics / animation and sounds designed by Sam Gee and Dan Mawson. Of these, the first is the most successfully integrated with the theatrical format. The other two—playing a VR game and painting / sketching using VR—are interesting (especially being able to walk through and view the artwork at different angles) but feel a bit like watching an advertisement for VR rather than an essential part of the musical.
The first shared experience is, however, a truly immersive event. We not only get to see Guy’s tentative contact with potential lovers via a dating app, the characters with whom he interacts form a massive chorus which runs right around the audience, singing about the superficial nature of Internet dating while exploiting it to the maximum. It is a highly convincing example of the potential of the hybrid theatre-VR format.
Adding the VR sequences necessitates trimming some of the depth from the original script, so Guy seems disquieted rather than tormented. The need to pause and help the audience don the VR equipment and instruct in its use makes for a stop-start production. Director Steve Banks does his best to cover over the cracks; an ebullient Harry Harrington not only serves as VR facilitator but as a narrator, helping to keep the plot on the boil.
The uneven transition process involving the audience putting on / taking off the VR equipment breaks concentration during Double Life—A VR Musical, but the show certainly demonstrates the potential of the use of VR equipment in theatre.
Reviewer: David Cunningham