Flavour Text is a new interactive online theatre piece by Nottingham-based company Chronic Insanity that invites the audience to participate in an internet-wide treasure hunt on their laptops. Part of Chronic Insanity’s 12 shows in 12 months, it is directed and designed by Joe Strickland and is produced by Charlotte Holder. The show is experienced across numerous different websites, online forums and chat threads that help you uncover the truth about several people who have gone missing in and around Bermondsey in South East London.
Described as “the written equivalent of a found footage film” by the creative team, this show asks you to put aside your conventional notions of “online theatre” and instead, put on your detective hat as you wade through a series of hidden clues, discreet confessions and intriguing archived messages on your laptop. There is no “right” way to experience this project, which lasts 45-60 minutes if you zip through it and a few hours if you take your time and engage with the whole of the (digital) world. Written by an ensemble of writers – Megan Gates, Charlotte Holder, Ruth Mestle, Harry Smith and Sophie Whitebrook – the story begins at you exploring the takeout menu of an Italian restaurant called Tastea Eastry that is now closed due to the sudden disappearance of its owner. Upon closer examination, you stumble upon more missing person reports in the Bermondsey Community Watch blog that indicates a larger conspiracy is at play. From here on, you start navigating various different fictionalized “sites” of the world, such as a newspaper report in the Goodian, a defunct social media profile on Moospace, harsh food reviews on Yolp, a discontinued brand account on Twooter and even a small trip down the good ol’ dark web. At every step, you find puzzle pieces that lead to the next, engaging the audience in a manner wherein they have control over the narrative. This is where the project really shines as it uses this mystery storyboard to build upon a modern behavioural and somatic phenomenon we all know too well – the act of ‘lurking’ and ‘infinite scrolling’ on the web – or simply the ability to get lost in digital worlds as we click one link after another and continue consuming information (even if it has no real relevance to our personal self or circumstances).
The intricacies of the plot of Flavour Text don’t matter as much as the connections between its different puzzle pieces, which is the key in any interactive theatre piece as often, audiences can struggle to participate in a way that the creator intends them to (which can lead to the audience feeling frustrated as they’re sat on their laptops not knowing where to go next). A commendable effort of the show’s design is the presence of the character of Charles Dodson (stalk him on Twitter @SpatialBadger) who will step in to help you out should you be stuck at any part of the mystery. The sheer efforts put into the design, writing and coding of this project demand special recognition, given any interactive theatre show is as good as the boundaries (and red herrings!) that create its theatrical world for audiences to navigate. This is where Flavour Text can continue improving its audience’s experience, for instance, by focusing more care and effort into curating the audience’s digital path rather than inundating them with information that, ultimately, isn’t critical to solving the mystery and risks being perceived as frivolous. The believability of the text-based world can be expanded significantly by hosting the fictional sites on actual, separate website domains or having the characters comment on real-life forums (e.g. Quora, Reddit) that immerses the audience even more.
To summarize, Flavour Text is an ambitious, entertaining and unique form of online (no, scratch that!) internet theatre that serves as a powerful example of how drama may play out in the digital worlds we occupy. Perhaps if we look a little closer, we may find some already.
The show can be experienced anytime on Chronic Insanity’s website until 31st December 2021. You can learn more and sign up here: https://www.tickettailor.com/events/chronicinsanity/483335/
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 31st March 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★