KARAOKE, Battersea Arts Centre


Try not to think of a stage.

Try not to think of a screen.

Try not to think of a boy and a girl.

Try not to think of a karaoke machine.

Try not to think about the end of the world.

To be completely honest, I’m not really sure how to write about KARAOKE. The first time I saw Sleepwalk Collective’s haunting, hallucinatory show was in Edinburgh, where I was emotional and sleep-deprived and found the whole thing quite mind-alteringly trippy. At one point in the show, the karaoke machine at the centre of it all describes the audience as “sort of woozy and credulous and sad”. Seeing it on the Fringe, I thought: yep. Yep, that’s me.

Inevitably, seeing it in the course of life’s more regular rhythms lends the show a different impact. It’s not quite so woozy, but no less strangely compelling. The central conceit is there in the title: performers iara Solano Arana and Sammy Metcalfe read aloud and obey instructions from a karaoke machine, all of whose text is projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage. They remain trapped throughout in some kind of nightmarish limbo, condemned to read from the tyrannical machine until the text stops – if it ever does.

There is, of course, a big old metaphor for text-driven theatre embedded in the form of the show. And at first, with its self-referential nods to audience and performance space, it seems like KARAOKE is just more theatre about theatre (not that I don’t love theatre about theatre). But at some point this meditative, deadpan, stealthily intoxicating show expands into something more. It is also about life and death and meaning and chaos and love and sex and birth and legacy and time and media and screens and pop culture and machines and catastrophe and apocalypse. The future is already written. Everything is inevitable. Read on.

The space that KARAOKE inhabits is somewhere in the join of things, in the cracks between the paving slabs. It highlights the gap between thought and feeling, between imagination and reality, between text and performance, between instruction and action, between the real and the performed. For the length of the performance, we too float somewhere in that space, text and images flashing relentlessly before our eyes. Time twists and warps and meaning feels like quicksand.

There is no singing in KARAOKE. But it shares with the best pieces of music that extraordinary, slippery ability to completely alter the mood of its audience. And as with songs, it’s impossible to pin down exactly what it is that’s so powerful. Somewhere between the deadpan delivery and the low hum of background music, between the coloured lights and the cloud of mist that cloaks the stage, the show takes hold and won’t let go. We, like the performers, are at the mercy of the karaoke machine. Read on.

P.S. Meg Vaughan and Mary Halton both played blinders on this one, so go and read their (much more interesting and inventive) responses.

P.P.S (and also *SPOILER ALERT*) Can those of us who have seen the show just pause a moment to appreciate that kiss?