There are said to be 2,500 cults active in the UK today, many grooming young people online. According to this verbatim theatre piece – the words are those of parents and ex-cult members – the easiest to recruit are not shy, introverted young people but intelligent, questioning, socially-adept ones. It’s a major problem and deserves a serious piece of drama. Unfortunately Cult is not it.
A round-robin of cult movements of the past – Waco, Heaven’s Gate, even the Manson “Family” – shows that many cults share the same rules of engagement to ensnare members. Cutting ties with family, apocalyptic foretellings, offers to followers that they can reach their full potential, the ostracisation of doubters all play a part. The real-life warnings of lives ruined by brainwashing, promises and threats are interspersed with curiously upbeat folk/rock songs, too few of which make direct comment on the sham (and hate) that cults peddle. More worryingly, some numbers seem to be the cults’ own anthems. The entire, blue-clad company, at one point, stand and sing “We are the children of the army and we will hold the blessed banner” with such friendly gusto I almost shouted out “where do I sign?” Another song was reminiscent of the famous 1971 soft sell “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial.
A co-production between youth groups Unknown Theatre Company in Cardiff and McCurdy Theatre Arts in Wisconsin, Cult’s performers are a talented, international troupe. They sing well and have great stage presence. Yet, this remains a powerful example of how drama can disturb and get under the skin – not always for the best reasons.
If Cult is meant to be a dire warning of the dangers of seeking enlightenment from dodgy pseudo-religious cabals that promise the world in exchange for your freedom and self-respect it is seriously misjudged. The songs should backup the message of the spoken text but often seem to do the opposite. The Westboro Baptist Church number “God Hates Fags” comes close but the others miss the mark. With such potentially inflammatory material more care is needed.