You Me Bum Bum Train
Best theatre of 2012, No 9: You Me Bum Bum Train.
This summer's new incarnation of the immersive theatre sensation didn't just live up to the hype – it blew it away. (Alert: contains spoilers)
Tue 11 Dec 2012 17.22 GMTFirst published on Tue 11 Dec 2012 17.22 GMT
Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd's YMBBT(as we're destined to call it – the title itself remains teasingly enigmatic) was one of the very few theatre experiences I've had that not only lived up to the hype, but utterly blew it away. Refined, sharpened, tinkered with, expanded since its debut eight years ago, it has mutated into something different and more ambitious each time. When I finally snagged a ticket to the 2012 incarnation, which filled a former office building in east London, a stone's throw from the Olympic site, it proved just as surprising and category-defying as anything that happened at the games: a theatre show that the words "theatre" and "show" don't seem adequate to describe. A solo voyage through fantasy and dream done with courageous (sometimes jaw-dropping) sleight of hand, it was a compelling journey around the possibilities of theatrical illusion. As an experience, it was almost literally unimaginable.
It's impossible to talk about YMBBT without mentioning specifics (and breaking the rule of #secrecy), so here's your final warning if you don't want to know the kind of thing it involved. You entered on your own, in what at Stratford looked like a grimy dentist's waiting room, and with ushers feeding you through to the entrance one by one. It began in humdrum circumstances: with a door that didn't open quite the way you expected it to. But it rapidly progressed into an experience where every turn you took, around a warren-like maze of spaces, became a portal into the unknown, a wonderland in which you played an increasingly astonished Alice.
Once I found myself crawling out of a dumb waiter into a restaurant kitchen where I was abruptly required to prep veg; later I was called upon to lead an exercise class. There was a moment where I had to lecture about a piece of contemporary art I'd never seen before to a crowd of bemused gallery spectators; another when I had to address a funeral in an eerily authentic mockup of a chapel of rest. I had to rinse someone's bangs in a hair salon, then commentate a snooker match. At one point I appeared to be floating above a life-size railway carriage filled with chattering commuters. For me, the most arresting moment of all – summit of a lifetime's daydreams – was emerging to find myself in front of a live chamber orchestra, with a baton and a copy of the overture to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (if I had my time again, I'd have attacked those woodwind arpeggios near the top with a bit more determination).
Here it all gets jumbled; part of the point about YMBBT, I suspect, is that it's near-impossible to reassemble afterwards in your mind. It could have lasted hours; in fact I was sipping a drink in the bar, swapping survivors' tales, in under 45 minutes. As a piece of drama, it toyed with many of the things that are current in theatre at the moment – the boundaries between individual and collective experience, the fragmented nature of story and plot, of belief and disbelief. It required you to improvise your own theatrical experience, and do so in an environment that referenced 3D film, performance art, theme parks and gaming (one could interpret the locations in which you appeared as a series of disconnected, free-associative scenes; equally as a role-playing game requiring varying levels of skill). But where other immersive theatre I've done has touched on themes of isolation and fear – even of being excluded entirely from the experience – YMBBT felt almost entirely euphoric: a shot of pure, adrenal excitement, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to break the rules and see what you were capable of.
In part, that was down to the remarkable care with which the event was curated. The sets were blockbuster-like in their ambition and attention to detail, and created with what was presumably a huge budget. (Was that really an ice-cream van inside? Where did they get hold of the JCB?) Mostly, though, it was down to the team of volunteers – reportedly 200 each time – who populated each journey, kept it running smoothly, and played their own roles with dedication and conviction. There was controversy earlier this summer about YMBBT's volunteers being unpaid, something that upset Equity. But the salary bill would surely have been impossible; and the fact that everyone who was doing it really wanted to, and was getting something out of it too, may well have added to the experience. Many of the scenes created for "passengers" could have been minor nightmares – for some people, no doubt they are – but because of the warmth and generosity of these collaborators you never felt abandoned, more often encouraged to attempt the apparently impossible.
All in all, I've never done anything like it, and I'm sure anyone who took part in whatever way would agree. Immersive is a much bandied-about and abused term these days. With YMBBT, though, part of me feels like I'm still deep inside it; yet to surface and catch breath.