John Robertson: The Dark Room

Thu 4th – Sat 27th August 2016

reviews

Ellen Hodgetts

at 16:43 on 24th Aug 2016

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“You awake to find yourself in a dark room” is the phrase which perpetuates throughout John Robertson’s interactive game show comedy, and one which is immediately proven to be true as I enter a dark, dingy bunker of a performance space, lit only by a projection screen which has the words “you are about to die” written on it. The venue lends itself well to Robertson’s performance, as the only light throughout comes from a torch in his hands, helping to create an immersive atmosphere as he is always in control of who, and what, is lit up. The formula is simple: Robertson acts out a live version of the ‘text-based adventure game’ computer programmes which were popular in the 1980s, as he takes on the role of the God-like controller voice, and chooses unsuspecting audience members as his players. There are five rounds, each with different members of the audience participating, choosing options on the screen to try and escape from the dark room.

It is a nostalgic tribute to the gaming of a former era, which cleverly satirises the notoriously difficult and exasperating nature of the “you awake to find yourself in a dark room” genre. Whilst Robertson has come up with an innovative premise, however, when this extended over an hour it soon loses its charm and becomes as repetitive and frustrating as the very thing he is trying to lampoon. When we reach the final round, entitled 'the round of democracy’, I hope that something different is about to take place. Instead, this ‘democratic’ version of a game round merely consists of all the audience members shouting at once for their favourite option – a frustrating and headache-inducing exercise which is drawn out over ten minutes. The most entertaining parts of ‘The Dark Room’ come not from the game show charade at all, but from Robertson’s opening of stand-up comedy and the interludes between rounds. He is instantly engaging, witty and self-deprecating despite his aggressive appearance, and immediately likeable. His jokes are a blend of both classic and topical humour, and are told with excellent comic timing. Robertson’s commitment to his performance can neither be denied nor faulted: the persona which he adopts is characterised by a sadistic grin and maniacal laughter, resulting in a performance that maintains an incredibly high level of energy throughout.

In a show that relies entirely upon audience participation he is able to respond quickly and humorously with any curveballs that are thrown at him, and for the most part engages well with spectators. At times, however, audience interactions become painful, as he resorts to insults in a cheap attempt to retain his position of power as the leader of the game. His choice of audience members is merciless, making for uncomfortable viewing as he forces people to participate who would clearly rather be left alone. It is this aspect of the show which I find to be the most flawed, as rather than adding to, it merely undermines his comedic talent.

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Ryan Bradley

at 18:46 on 24th Aug 2016

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‘John Robertson: The Dark Room’ is an improvised gameshow. The premise alone demands attention. Parodying text-based adventure games, the show could easily lose itself within a niche idea, baffling an unfamiliar audience. Luckily it does not, being rescued by the comedian himself.

Explaining a potentially bad concept with great skill, John Robertson’s ‘gamemaster’ character is an astounding force of energy, booming his way to a sore throat. Robertson copes best in unpredictable situations, his improvised material often equalling (or maybe even outshining) his written material. That being said, his written material is generally excellent, blending crude humour with eloquent theatrics. Creating a kind of faux-poeticism, this amuses through its bizarre poignancy and absurdity. Wildly entertaining in these moments of bombast, the show’s odd premise is elevated through his mere presence.

The ‘lower’ humour (i.e. a joke about an audience member’s veiny arms looking like two gigantic penises) can blight his shrewd observations. However, it comes with one advantage. As a result, the more ‘intellectual’ material arrives with a certain freshness. If either approach dominated, ‘The Dark Room’ would not work as well. As a note, ‘mature’ content only materialises once Robertson efficiently gathers the audience’s age range. Advised for those over the age of twelve at Brighton Fringe, CatFace Talent has pared this back to ‘PG’ for Edinburgh. Indeed, the majority of the show is suitable for families, though many of the 1980s references may be lost on younger children. At times, the spectators do appear confused by the occasional allusion, yet Robertson is more than able to recover from this. The talented comic can recover from nearly everything.

Accidentally bumping into his projector, he regains composure quickly. Obscurer references are counteracted by discussions of Brexit or Pokemon Go, assuring the attention of those unacquainted with adventure games.

Robertson better be drinking lots of lemon juice and herbal tea. His false voice, an impersonation of Brian Blessed or Patrick Stewart, becomes quite hoarse as the show goes on. This is an obvious flaw. With it, the effectiveness of his persona fades a little. Considering Robertson’s loud, barking tone, this is only to be expected. Again, he salvages it well, employing the quick, sarcastic wit which makes ‘The Dark Room’ a sheer pleasure to watch.

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