Variations on a theme is the best way to describe Forced Entertainment‘s Real Magic. A trio of performers (Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall) in various configurations and costumery deliver multiple remixes of the same basic scene – a cheesy and futile prime-time game show in which the host encourages one contestant to guess the word the other contestant is thinking of. No-one wins. The guesses are always wrong. There’s no jackpot prize at the end of the tunnel. It’s Vladimir and Estragon playing Blankety Blank.
The building blocks from which the three create their scenes are limited and repetitive. The guesses are always “electricity”, “hole”, “money” in that order. The host may explain the rules or ask their names or check whether they’ve met before. The thinker is often holding a cardboard sign displaying their word. Any of them could be wearing part or all of a chicken costume or not. Within that framework, they get to riff – fast or slow, dejected or excited, pausing for response or rushing through it. Each scene gets its own flavour. One assumes there must be an element of improvisation to all this, but the actors have dynamics they’re reaching to hit. There’s canned laughter, applause and incidental music, all deliberately off beat, but suiting the pace of each scene en0ugh to reveal an element of planning. For the duration of your patience, it is an interesting tableau – theatre as art installation, with a strange, hypnotic beauty.
What we are to make of it all is another thing. Obviously, a sense of ennui hangs heavily over proceedings. Beyond that there’s versions that evoke panic and others that read more like a marriage counselling session, the two contestants hanging their heads and looking anxious. But no patterns emerge, and it’s not as if individual repetitions have their own internal logic or even a coherent tone. Elements hang together fairly randomly. If this were music, it would be jazz or contemporary classical, but with variations on the central motif that were entirely discordant, pushing definition to its limits.
It leaves its mark by earworming its stock phrases into your head and by willing you to succumb to the same frustration the contestants feel. Succumb you do. Staying in the theatre is a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Some do leave; the others, like the characters they’re watching remain looking for answers.