How do we know something to be true? Living in a world where we are lied to time and time again by governments and the media, we find ourselves wondering: what are we to believe? Who are we to trust? In the second act of the Almeida Young Company’s double-bill at the Rose Lipman Building, we are transported back in time from the London of today to the Midwest of 1970s America, introducing us to a rookie detective determined to discover “the truth” about a small town riddled by conspiracy theories.
Embedded within (This Isn’t) A True Story is the importance of trying to distinguish fact from fiction. In a stroke of creative genius, Nina Segal’s script takes every opportunity to remind the audience that what they are seeing onstage is pretend: that nothing in the performance is real or true. To help convince her audience of this fact, we see the cast frequently change or break character, stage directions are said aloud alongside the action, and dramatic tropes – typically used to create tension – are mercilessly mocked. Actor Jerry Woolley is tasked with making sure we are not lost in the action on stage – snapping us back to reality whenever things become tense.
The metatheatrical nature of the performance is thrilling, and the cast relish the opportunity to make fun of their craft and the artifice of theatre. A particular highlight comes with the multiple actors taking on the role of “rookie detective Ted” with his notebook in hand. As the new arrival from the big city tries to get to know the residents of the small town, talk of suspicious goings-on begin to manifest. With each handover of his hat, aviators and all-American denim jacket, Ted loses his grip on the situation, as the town’s seemingly-shady inhabitants reveal themselves to be a community fuelled by conspiracy. So when an offhand comment is made about the town’s water supply, paranoia spreads likes wildfire.
Every cast member shines in this production. Whether they are in character or confessing their own fears about society, there is conviction behind every word spoken. The group hysteria becomes hysterically funny, pushing the absurdity of the drama to its limit. Their theories about the moon landings, JFK and even the cover up of Paul McCartney’s death lead to some bewildering yet brilliant musical and visual interludes – highlighting how often people question what is told to them by the media and governing bodies.
Everything about this production feels right. The makeshift stage and props, along with the 70s-style costuming are all well done, and the funky dance number that opens the performance lifts the spirits of those who have sat in that furnace of a hall for one performance already. Even the restrictive nature of the traverse stage is used to the cast’s advantage; we find ourselves looking back and forth from one side of the room to the other as the actors (in and out of character) argue over the play’s events, as if we too are part of this comedy skit.
It is this focus on the comedic aspect of (This Isn’t) A True Story that makes the play’s close so effective. The unexpected climax and sudden change of tone is intense and incredibly unsettling. The actors’ inability to separate the play from reality reflects how complicated the truth can be. Sasha Venmore-Rowland’s performance in these final moments is chilling; her interactions with Sylvie Briggs and the rest of her peers reminds us that the Almeida Young Company are not amateurs.
Although (This Isn’t) A True Story is a work of fiction, Segal’s work offers harsh truths about the society we live in. For within all the hysteria and hilarity portrayed by this tour-de-force of a company, there is a real fear about the truths societies are built upon and how we cope when we can’t distinguish the truth from fake news or lies.