Theatre Company: South Devon College
Cast: Ryan Hannaford, Georgia Brooks, Sophie Amos, Jemma Carlin Wells, Daniel King, Hugh Maylon, Elke Weiler and Tim Hanrahan
Plot: The suave Hans (Hannaford) seems the essence of gentlemanly, but his true intentions are to lure unsuspecting girls to Pleasure Island, where he can sell them into prostitution.
The best thing about Immersive Theatre is that scary moment an audience undergoes when they have no idea what is coming next. The facts we know about Pleasure Island: the Drama, Performance and Arts Management students have been tasked with creating a piece of theatre about human trafficking, raising awareness for the serious issue of young girls being lured away from their families and friends, and then being sold into prostitution. They have decided to use the theme of fairy tales to tell this story. Everything else is simply strapping yourself in for the ride.
And the entire hour’s performance is a lesson in what theatre is actually capable of. The audience assemble outside the theatre space, greeted by Elke Weiler, playing Jack, the tour guide of the piece. She also acts as a market, handing out jelly babies, condoms, lube and all manner of strange trinkets. Instantly, the audience are uncomfortable, invited to play along, but also coaxed out of their comfort zone. When Elke finally takes you into the space, two of the audience members turn out to be incognito cast members, Ryan Hannaford’s smooth-talking Hans and Jemma Carlin-Wells sweet, pretty Belle. After a brief dialogue scene, where Hans falls just the wrong side of domineering, a video clip starts up on a projector of the actors introducing you to the piece, taking on the role of creepy puppets. Only when the clip rolls to a close, does the piece truly begin? And we are already lost in a sea of unknown, the promise of an unique experience already hanging in the air. True to the performance’s hinting, Welcome to Pleasure Island starts totally baffling. A club tune kicks in and Daniel King, dressed as a bright-eyed Peter Pan, hops out and starts quoting human trafficking facts and clinging onto the drug-addled illusion that he can fly. When the actor has set the tone, he actually drags the audience off of their seats and takes them outside of the theatre and outside… to the real Pleasure Island. It is a masterful decision on the creative team’s part, throwing the audience off balance and luring them into this world of carnival fantasy. Even when certain lead characters are introduced to be trafficked victims, the audience can never escape that sensation that they are next, hanging around a setting they did not sign up for. The performance expertly manipulates the gnawing feeling in the back of your mind, keeping that unsettling atmosphere constantly burning away. This is a performance where you never truly relax into what you are watching and this keeps every beat of Welcome to Pleasure Island brutally effective. What actually happens along the visit to Pleasure Island is best left to your own discovery, but it will pry emotion, horror and the cold rush of realisation to the audience, as the world of human trafficking is ripped open and lain bare for all to see.
The cast are terrific here, never allowing their complex set to quite steal the show from them. It is a well written piece, so there isn’t one character that gets dominance over the piece. We could argue that the character who crops up the most is Ryan Hannaford’s Hans, one half of the brother-sister hierarchy hanging over Pleasure Island. He steals most of the scene, jumping from a charismatic ringleader figure, inviting the audience to partake in the forbidden fruits he has made accessible, to the vile man behind the charming mask, whose acts of brutality open the audience’s eyes to the true horror of what they are watching. He is given fine support from Georgia Brooks, playing Greta, his sister and business partner. Greta is the smarter of the two, talking her brother through power-point presentations on how best to manipulate and ‘break’ the girls they bring to the Island. The two actors enjoy playing with each other’s positions of power, so even when we are trying to enjoy the piece as a simple form of entertainment, they give us a window to treat them as two intriguing villain figures with a shifting relationship. Their scenes together are also important, because they treat the trafficking statistics for laughs. It means that as they teach the audience about the horrors of this very real problem, it is easy for the spectators to swallow, offered as an amusing aside. The laughs also are twisted beautifully when the piece continues to show you the real effects of trafficking, making each laugh stolen from the audience’s lips, something they will end up squirming with guilt about. While the two heads of the criminal organisation hold the piece together, the other actors are given a handful of set-pieces apiece to break up the story. Sophie Amos shines as Rattica, heavy prosthetics turning the actress into a grotesque rat figure. Despite her appearance, she is the most kind-hearted character on display here, her chirpy attitude a shield from the horrors she is subjected to and her kind heart keeps the victims of the piece, hanging on rather than being totally lost to the misery of Pleasure Island. This goes for the audience as well as the characters. While the humour from Hans and Greta are information techniques, Rattica’s jokes are merely salvation for the audience, alleviating the dark subject matter and making it bearable. Pleasure Island’s biggest strength is that, despite the material, it never becomes too much. The other actors are just as outstanding. Daniel King takes a difficult, fact-filled monologue and makes it flow with ease. Jemma Carlin-Wells proceeds to break your heart, especially with a physical theatre piece that is expertly executed, both shocking and impossible to look away from. Hugh Maylon’s stage presence is wonderfully atmospheric, having the entire audience totally gripped. But special praise must be made for Tim Hanrahan, who plays PIN 5, the masked strongman of the carnival piece. Seen wandering the stage as a mute, muscle-bound heavy, there is a rare moment when we peek behind the mask and Hanrahan breaks into an emotional monologue that opens up the character beautifully.
By the time, the piece has rocked to its end, the audience are exhausted. The hour long show feels closer to twenty minutes, the pace kept so smooth that it is over before you know it. The sense of time is warped magnificently. Welcome to Pleasure Island not only entertains (or is entertains the wrong word? Enjoyment isn’t necessarily the aim here), but teaches. If the human trafficking angle doesn’t quite open your eyes, is is definitely a lesson in the capability of theatre. With only a few wobbles, which is part and parcel with pieces as audacious as immersive theatre on this scale, this is a well-executed experience, every inch of the set carefully crafted and used with precision.
Final Verdict: Very rarely does theatre leave quite a mark. Strong performances all around with an uncomfortably strong message to boot.