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We Are Not Alone
The Hen and Chickens
20th August 2016

★★★☆☆

Publicity image for We Are Not Alone

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

Back when I was a Girl Guide, I had to be prepared for anything. In practice, this meant carrying around a 20p coin and a plaster at all times. There are however bigger things for which you should be prepared, with Kate Webster's We Are Not Alone a semi-interactive play about getting ready for alien contact. I don't know about you, but I don't have a plan for that eventuality. And I'm not sure that 20p or plaster would be very helpful. If the Baden-Powells have left you similarly unequipped for an invasion, it's over to military specialist Captain Sam Reynolds (Anna Ruben) and astrobiologist Dr Alex Parker (Sean Joseph Young) to sort you out.

Audience members are scanned on the way into the educational workshop, which is a clever way to indicate that the show that follows is probably going to involve some sort of interaction. There's nothing worse than not knowing if you're supposed to play along or merely grin inanely. Getting the audience to contribute to a flip chart exercise really does make us feel included in the whole exercise. However and perhaps somewhat unfairly, we want director Rachel Creeger to go even further with the amount of interaction. Admittedly tricky, when it's always hard to predict both audience numbers and their attitude. Furthermore, the fixed layout of the venue doesn't really allow for breaking up the members into smaller groups so there is limited scope for developing this aspect.

Ruben maintains a stern air of seriousness at all times, never once noticeably corpsing. As the one with military training, her character is very precise, unemotional and determined to whip us all into shape over the course of this official class. Young's character is more laid-back and informal, allowing him to deliver what seems to be a shambolic performance, full of slips and ad-libs. It's essentially a gift of a role, allowing him to get away with anything as the bumbling, friendly PhD holder. Although the two actors provide a nice contrast to each other, the workshop does lack a sense of purpose.

Initially we understand we're being trained in what to do if we meet an alien, then we're asked if we even want to, which seems like a bit of a last minute Brexit rewrite. Whilst both concepts do work, a mix isn't particularly coherent. Personally, I think the way to preserve most of the existing material and give We Are Not Alone more of a clear direction would be to make the course more of a risk assessment about extraterrestrial contact - allowing Sam to still brief us on her survival strategies (worse case scenario) and Alex to continue to enthusiastically talk up any potential encounter. A subtle tweak

The workshop is broken up by flashbacks involving Sam and Alex, but not with each other. Except it often looks like it is. There's an element of confusion because it's not clear that the actors are doubling up rather than the main protagonists being related. On reflection, these scenes appear to be designed to show the motivation for Sam and Alex to be involved in such a niche project, but we lose most of the poignancy from working so hard to understand what is going on.

Regularly switching between an immersive style to sequences where there is clearly meant to be a fourth wall in place was always going to prove challenging. With these moments important to understanding the protagonists, they should stay in, however, more thought has to be given as to how to more fluidly incorporate them into the action. Whilst positioning the actors to the back of the stage does help create some kind of barrier between us and them, this on its own doesn't go far enough to underline the sudden jump in time and space.

Ultimately, the simple notion of not being alone can be interpreted both as comforting or as a threat, with this ambiguity central to the production. Just as we haven't fully explored space yet, it feels as if we haven't fully explored all of Webster's ideas, with an even more engaging tale tangled up in this curiously compelling but rough work-in-progress.

We Are Not Alone opened on 20th August and runs until 28th August 2016 (Saturdays and Sundays only) at the Hen and Chickens, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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