The concept for this immersive drama could make an inspired new reality TV show for our times, at least before it turns its dark corners: six celebrities who have disgraced themselves speak of their misdemeanours, show their remorse and – importantly – plead for audience votes. The winner gets £250,000 along with the promise of rehabilitation.
“Who wins? You decide!” says our slightly oily host, Rex Shakespeare (Christopher Killik), in the tones of a Big Brother presenter. It offers a witty take on cancel culture and feels at first like a reality TV format with ethical edges: can the comedian who told a racist joke win us back with his charm? Should the social media influencer be forgiven for dancing on the Trump family’s imaginary grave, after the US election, if she is sorry for it now?
But those considerations melt away as the horror kicks in. Our host never explains what will happen to the losers but it soon becomes clear that they are to be menaced by their greatest fears (ghosts, Ouija boards, spiders, etc) and the drama takes on shades of snuff movie entertainment as we watch them meet their variously grisly fates.
Created and directed by Richard Crawford for Secret Theatres, it is full of clever ideas, and holds our attention, but does not give us the participatory role we have been promised: we are supposed to be its judges and executioners but in practice we are not central to decision-making, despite the few moments we are invited to vote or make a phone call to try to save a contestant. Despite the interactive game-show element, it feels like a conventional drama even if we are watching it as a multi-camera film.
Most of our interaction is restricted to the “chat” function in Zoom, which allows for running commentaries and a potential to impact the live drama, however marginally. It contains all the group bonding and humour (albeit faceless), and becomes a slightly meta tool – like Gogglebox on Zoom.
But it has its thrills and spills and the contestants are well drawn – variously arrogant, spoiled or unrepentant. Harry (Nicholas Maude) is a former MP outed for hunting endangered animals; Addison (Nicole Rainteau) a coke-snorting gymnast; DJ Khan (Nicholas Prasad) a repentant misogynist; Marlon (Taylor Rettke), the racist comedian; and Wendy the influencer, brilliantly played by Julie Yammanee. There is also Issy (Bethan Barnard), ostensibly an audience member, dragged into the action.
They are all amusing, or amusingly offensive; so much so that it is a shame they begin to be killed off so soon, before the stakes have been sufficiently raised or we have bonded with any of them well enough, and the plot more generally might have been further developed but we cut to the chase too quickly.
When the gorefest comes, it is visceral: a bullet to the head, the sound of a breaking neck as someone is strung up, blood smeared against glass as an invisible assailant attacks a contestant. It loses itself in its frenzy of bloodletting at the end, and some of its effects seem too directly borrowed from classic horror movies such as Ring, Suspiria and Halloween.
This does not feel like the interactive production it is billed to be, in spirit, but it gives us the “scary movie” adrenaline-high nonetheless and its central idea might just have the germ of a fabulous feature film – or reality TV show.