Event review: ‘Choose Your Own Documentary’ at the Spread Eagle theatre

By - Wednesday 26th November, 2014

Anna Arthur votes this interactive show a hit

Photo by The Spread Eagle, used with permission.

I count myself lucky to have attended the first of only two performances of this show, on Friday 21st November. Its creator, Nathan Penlington is wonderfully geeky, a fact he will readily admit.

His showChoose Your Own Documentary, references a series of books published between 1979 and 1999, entitled ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’. This book series contains 184 titles and each one places the reader in the role of protagonist. The idea is that you choose your own story through a series of multiple-choice questions. It’s the fourth bestselling book series for children ever published, with more than 260 million copies sold in 38 languages. The stories are set in numerous locations across the globe, in outer space, under the sea and in vividly-imagined fantasy worlds.

Although these books are at the heart of the show, the story is a real one. Nathan Penlington, a lifelong fan of Choose Your Own Adventure, bought a job lot of 106 books on eBay. When they arrived he discovered that they had been personalised by their original owner with dates, times and observations. More than that, tucked in between the pages of one of the books he discovered four pages of a diary, which revealed the teenage angst of bullied Birmingham schoolboy Terence Prendergast. Penlington became obsessed with Terence, endlessly pondering what the cryptic entries mean (‘laugh practice laugh’, ‘Karen drugs guns’). In this way he starts his own adventure – to find Terence.

Part storyville documentary, part real life schoolboy adventure

On entering the theatre, each member of the audience is given a remote control. At the start of the show Penlington explains that we can affect the outcome of the story at given moments. Right from the get-go we are asked to choose from a number of multiple choice options. I should mention at this point that the show is similar to a lecture demonstration, using film as a major component. Penlington and the film take turns to move the story on, with the next twist decided by us. Sometimes we are asked to think carefully about our choice, having been made aware that it could bring the show to an abrupt end. Thankfully we appear to have chosen wisely, although I’m sure that the majority of the 1,566 possible versions have their own advantages.

So do we get to meet Terence and hear his story? Well, we did (although I was told that the previous twelve audiences did not), and very satisfying it was too. Penlington was, and is, extremely sensitive to his subject and, after meeting Terence, it takes a year to bring up the subject of the diary. Before that happens, however, he goes on a journey of self-discovery (yes I did just write that, but it’s true and I can’t think of a better way of expressing it) and we learn of his own difficult childhood, suffering from a genetic illness, spending many years in hospital and at home alone recuperating.

He identifies with Terence keenly, and this is a major factor in his eventual success in getting Terence to open up about the diary. It’s a fabulously happy ending (if you were clever enough to make the right choices!) and Penlington is warm, witty and thoughtful throughout. Part storyville documentary, part real life schoolboy adventure, this tale unfolds beautifully, leading, and led by, the audience. This is interactive theatre in the truest sense of the term.

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Anna Arthur

Anna Arthur

Anna Arthur is a mum of three, dog owner and director of Croydonites Festival of New Theatre. Born in the north-east, she grew up just outside of Portsmouth but London and Croydon have been her home for over 20 years. She also works in contemporary dance, but don’t hold that against her.

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  • Tom Black

    Sounds like a fantastic show. I wish I had been to see it – I will keep an eye open for it in the future! Thanks for the compellingly-written review, Anna.