REVIEW (From a distance): Operation Elsewhere (Big Telly Theatre Company)

It’s been seven weeks since we last set foot in a theatre. Since then we’ve watched a lot of recorded shows but something’s always been missing. Neither archive footage nor professionally filmed productions can quite capture the magic of the real thing. And even live-streams lack the crucial interaction between actor and audience. So we absolutely jumped at the chance to review a live, interactive show via Zoom. That’s right. Last night, for the first time in what feels like forever, we were part of a live audience. An audience who could be seen by the actors. And each other! Together we shared a totally bonkers experience And it’s the most normal we’ve felt in weeks!

Operation Elsewhere is produced by Big Telly Theatre Company, a professional theatre company from Northern Ireland which has quickly adapted to embrace the challenge of bringing its special brand of game-based and site-specific theatre directly into your home. Originally written by Jane Talbot, author of The Faerie Thorn, this new adaptation for Zoom features a cast of seven actors and music composed by Garth McConaghie. Directed by Big Telly’s founder and artistic director Zoe Seaton, it fuses Irish myths and modern technology to take audiences onto a zany trip into another dimension.

Cillian Lenahan in Operation Elsewhere

The adventure begins at border control, where we are subjected to security checks from a border control agent (Cillian Lenahan), who gives very good instructions on how to set up Zoom but turns out to be rather inept when it comes to securing the borders of Elsewhere. Soon the audience is involved in the action, submitting to full body scanning and producing shoes, liquids and even pets for inspection!

After this, things start to get a bit bonkers, as we find ourselves wearing soft furnishings to try and look inconspicuous at the wedding of Anya (Rosie McClelland) and Dave (Keith Singleton), having been sent there by Puca the faerie (Chris Grant) who has unsuccessfully stopped a bearded bloke called Colin (Rhodri Lewis) crossing over from Elsewhere to try and take Anya’s place as Dave’s bride. With Anya captured by Sweeney The Birdman (Michael Johnston) we end up enlisted into an army and sent on a mission to rescue her. Thankfully we have retired warrior, Scatha (Nicky Harley) to put us through our paces (which involves an array of techniques from sneaking about under blankets to mimicking our internet buffering). If we’re honest, we didn’t always have a clue what was going on, but we couldn’t care less.

Nicky Harley in Operation Elsewhere

It’s completely loopy and hands down the best use of Zoom that we have come across. It makes full use of its interactive features and green screen technology, as well as encouraging the audience to get creative with their surroundings. It’s amazing how many people seem to have something resembling war paint lying around the living room. (Quaver opted for ketchup!) And there’s something very special about seeing everyone joining in so enthusiastically, as the different households pop up in the centre of the screen (thanks to some nifty Zoom trickery from Sinead Owens).

Whether it’s the novelty of sharing a theatrical experience with other humans after so long, or audience participation seeming less scary from the safety of the sofa, this was definitely one of the most energetic audiences we’ve had the pleasure to be a part of. The munchkins got right into the action, and absolutely loved seeing themselves on screen. (They even asked if they could watch again tomorrow!) It was also a brilliant touch to put everyone into gallery mode at the end so that the whole audience to could see other and the fabulous cast.

Overall, Operation Elsewhere is an absolutely joyous piece of interactive mayhem which pushes the boundaries of digital theatre and reaps the rewards. A brilliant hour of escapism which proves that live theatre is alive and well, albeit displaced elsewhere for now!

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles and Mittens (4 out 5 of my favourite things)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Operation Elsewhere is playing from 2 to 4 May 2020. Tickets cost £20 per device and are available from Creation Theatre. We received a complimentary press ticket for the 7pm performance on 2 May.