The Department of Distractions

Alexander Kelly with additional text by Stacey Sampson
Third Angel with Northern Stage
The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth

The Department team portrait Credit: Von Fox Promotions

A fascinating premise which falls somewhat flat but sets the mind racing.

Rather than 1984-esque mind control, The Department Of Distractions diverts attention from outrage against the machine—start to write a protest e-mail and up pops an article claiming the superpowers of an oddly-shaped fruit which just must be read; ruminating on action against the government’s latest Bill when a sobbing young woman leaves a torn-up letter on the bus… clever devices to disarm the populace and minimise disruption.

Claiming that it all makes the world more interesting, providing a cause and talking point, random objects—abandoned toys in the street, empty rowing boats with a table set for two—and media stories—baby monitors picking up police radio, documentaries on '80s pop idols, motorway overnight closures—are carefully placed to offset civil unrest and provide replacement ‘legitimate causes for concern’.

Daphne (Stacey Sampson) is the newcomer to the clandestine group. Noticed due to her answers to weird online quizzes (we have all seen them pop up on Facebook) and fast-tracked due to her fantastical ideas, she joins the dour Freya (Rachael Walton), lost-boy-in-need-of-a-friend Paladin (Umar Butt) and their leader Lockhart (Nick Chambers) in the quest to provide narrative for inquisitive minds, to divert and distract.

Following a single day in the life of the clandestine group, the absurd and interesting becomes mundane office work—progressing the long-running stories: postcards from a stolen garden gnome; programming Alexas with new, surprising, vocabulary; and planting the seeds of phobias to buy into (fear of nail polish, touch screens, recycling) with a subtle update or spin—while innovative ideas are bandied about with urban myths at the ready (the condition of inheritance being to sever the spinal chord of a certified dead father fearful of being buried alive) and soulmate apps programmed to wreak havoc with the psyche.

And then there is the mystery of the missing traffic and weather radio presenter whose final bulletin is packed with cryptic clues, conspiracy and whose boyfriend has played dead just too often. And what if someone were to on the trail to expose the department? Just how far would they go to preserve the department's anonymity?

Tremendous, thought-provoking ideas but the delivery is just not enough to keep the pace. Much information is to be imparted and Alexander Kelly (who developed the idea with the cast) allots lengthy monologues to dispense the need-to-know and pedestrian playacting to relay the ‘detective story’ with all its twists and turns. Interspersed with coy building blocks of friendship between the newcomer and Paladin, there are moments of interest and engagement as ploys ring true and much is recognised but, unfortunately, there is just not enough pep.

Interesting but dragged a tad even at an unbroken 1 hour 20.

Reviewer: Karen Bussell