Review: A Small Town Anywhere, Battersea Arts Centre
Published on Culture Wars, 29.10.2009
From my pulpit, I am engaged in a slur campaign. For no reason other than his political allegiances, I have written several libellous letters concerning the Mayor to my fellow townsfolk. All are, of course, left unsigned. After all, as the town’s priest, I cannot have suspicion turning my way. The following day, when the town council meet to banish one of this community, two names emerge – mine and his – before a surprising turnaround sees him escorted into the wilderness.
Do I feel guilty? Not a jot. Without the Mayor, my own political party of choice – the rigidly traditional Wrens – walk an easy path to victory and take control of the town. Personally, my own standing in the town increases, leaving me free to turn my slander on a new target: the quiet woodsman. Why? Because I can.
This is A Small Town Anywhere and, in it, suspicion and manipulation, paranoia and self-preservation are our rulers. Part balloon-debate, part role-playing game, part unscripted play, A Small Town Anywhere hands over the reins to its audience of participants, each of whom is given a role within the community, and allows history to be shaped by our decisions and snap judgements. Over two hours, a week passes and a dramatic one, at that, filled with elections, allegiances, coups, blossoming relationships and betrayals.
Ostensibly, we are trying to identify and cast out a figure known as The Raven, who knows a bit too much about each of us. I, for example, cannot have details of my affair with La Chantreuse emerge. Others have their own secrets to hide. However, in the course of proceedings, our individual objectives take over. In other words, as in life, there really is no ultimate, collective end. Instead, we find our own targets and employ tactics towards that end.
That this scope for free choice exists without scuppering the event towards chaos is a credit to how well-designed A Small Town Anywhere is as a game. We are observed and monitored through spyholes in the walls, through this never becomes intrusive, and both the disembodied, calming voice of the Town Cryer and the letters received each day serve to keep the game rumbling on apace. In short, the game can adjust to every possibility, including, on this occasion, a well-intentioned mutiny and a final refusal to sacrifice any member of the town.
The pacing is perfect, such that we are gradually immersed in a fiction to the point of investment. The functional rules are explained succinctly and delicately, though there is neither the possibility for nor the pressure of going wrong. Through email encounters with Henri, the small town historian, you gradually invent your character and a backstory of sorts. Yet, this is no Murder Mystery party; there is no sense of acting. You, yourself, are very much present in the small town. Your decisions remain yours, not those that your character might make. Not only does this remove awkward inhibitions, it allows the piece an ethical and political dimension beyond the bounds of the small town. You feel the weight of betrayals as much as the excitement of transgressions.
There are a few nagging concerns. The role of The Raven feels underdeveloped and, at times, a certain arbitrariness creeps in, such that targets are chosen simply to chose a target, but this, of course, brings its own implications. Equally, there is a sense that suspicion is often born of no more than prominence. It was interesting to note that those participants that stuck to running personal businesses were less likely to attract mistrust than those given public duties, such as the Mayor or the Publican. Perhaps, also, there is a feeling that the creators learn more than the players by seeing the range of possibilities and charting a wider history of the many different small towns that spring into existence.
Though I suspect that it may happen in due course, A Small Town Anywhere would benefit from sharing the outside perspective. At present, I know that, as the Priest, I acted less than impeccably with a certain relish. However, there is only a soft sense of specific wrongdoings and the effects of actions. Without some record or judgement post-event, one doesn’t become fully accountable for misdeeds committed. Indeed, it becomes far easier to dismiss A Small Town Anywhere as mere play, despite the strong moral, political and social elements that undoubtedly exist therein. All they need is backing up.
But what if it is just play? Would that be so bad? After all, it is in the bar afterwards – swapping stories, exchanging experiences and dissecting the event – that a real community comes into existence. As strangers connect afterwards, A Small Town Anyway grows in import and the game really does begin to matter.
Photograph: Briony Campbell