If you’ve ever endured a corporate team building ‘awayday’ you’ll be able to relate to the feeling you get on arriving for Lovers Anonymous. The chairs are arranged in a large circle around the room. There’s a basic table with tea, coffee and biscuits which the eager and slightly too enthusiastic Mike urges you to enjoy before the meeting gets started.
It transpires that what we’re attending is one of the regular meetings of a sort of counselling/self help group called Lovers Anonymous. After the obligatory warm-up exercises Mike and Sandra introduce us to the purpose of the group – a communal safe space where people can open up about their personal experiences of love and relationships. Various members of the group make contributions when prompted by our hosts. It’s not clear at first which are genuine contributions from the audience and which from other cast members who are mixed in amongst us. A few latecomers are admitted and this causes even more confusion. Are they genuinely late arrivals or entrances being made by more cast members? I’m not sure I really know even now!
The whole effect is unnerving to say the least. You find yourself watching everyone else. The ice-breaking games serve only to increase the sense of tension in the room. It comes as something of a relief, then, at least to genuine audience members, when cracks begin to show in the supposedly perfect relationship of Mike and Sandra. Her simmering resentment drips into proceedings slowly but surely, ready for an explosive moment you just know is coming.
Other group members it seems have been attending meetings regularly. Their various inadequacies and romantic failings are in their own way reassuring to the rest of us, whilst also providing some great, if perhaps unkind, laughs. Simon, for example, tells us how he has finally had the courage to speak to Emma, who he’s been admiring from afar these past two years. Suffice to say that when he brings out an album of photos of Emma it’s immediately clear he’s not made the progress the group was hoping for.
Serious issues are also addressed. Like casual sexism and the effect of pervasive pornography. The climax of the hour sees the whole of Mike and Sandra’s world collapse, whilst at least some of their group members are able to see the light and find the confidence to address their relationship needs outside the confines of Lovers Anonymous.
This was quite the most unusual experience I’ve had in a theatre for some time. The one thing I’ve always known in any show, even those designed to be interactive and immersive, is who are the actors and who are the audience. By brilliantly subverting this basic rule right from the moment you walk in, Lovers Anonymous does something unique, challenging, funny and thought-provoking.
Lovers Anonymous is at The Space Arts Centre until 19 July 2019.