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John Robertson: The Dark Room

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Jay Richardson

‘You awake to find yourself in a dark room…’ What a marvellous, maddening concept this is from the twisted psyche of John Robertson.

Based on the choose-you-own-adventure computer games of his lonely childhood, the Australian storyteller has contrived a simple, text-based roleplaying game-cum-show that spoofs the megalomaniac tendencies and arbitrary cruelty of the stand-up comedian. Think Dungeons and Dragons without the dragons.

The technology employed is rudimentary, but it’s a measure of the show’s uncomplicated allure and community-fostering spirit that ten, delayed minutes of failing to get his laptop working, with a technician from another venue assisting the resident, didn’t result in any walkouts.

Robertson has more than something of the night about him, a shameless ham with a rich, deep voice and unquestionable stage presence, all too easily convincing you of the value of his dubious enterprise.

Sporting a rig and chestplate with a games controller as its centrepiece, he has a couple of lights illuminating what is otherwise murky blackness, save for the giant screen projecting behind him. With the lights off, he’s an amiable host, explaining the game’s rules and giving a running commentary on the show’s more chaotic moments. Yet when he flicks them on, he becomes the Dark Room itself, his eyebrows arched, his features etched with diabolic intent and his voice booming through the cavernous gloom.

Representing five individual lives, players tend to be plucked from the audience, though this is a show where volunteering is recommended. Fifty pounds is the incentive for anyone who can complete the game, which, at the time of writing, no one, not even visiting choose-you-own-adventure creator Ian Livingstone, has successfully accomplished. For a free show, that’s nothing ventured and everything to gain.

Awakening in the Dark Room, players are offered various, colour-coded choices, from the logical to the completely off-the-wall, with laughter prompted by the unpredictable consequences. Death is always just around the corner. And yet, over five lives, people begin to remember the narrative paths, leading to conflicting cries of directions and encouragement, an emerging democratic system undermined by selections that evoke Stalin.

Brendon Burns participated on the afternoon I attended and it was hilarious to witness this most cocksure of comics being roundly shouted down.

How deep the game gets I’ve no idea. The graphics are non-existent and the gameplay has retro charm only. The show as a whole might charitably be described as in the beta stage of development.

Still, there’s something enjoyable lurking in the gloom and its sense of quest. It will be fascinating to see if Robertson develops the idea further in the future or simply retains it as an excuse to bellow in strangers’ faces.

Review date: 15 Aug 2012
Reviewed by: Jay Richardson
Reviewed at: Alternative Fringe @ The Hive

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