Off the Grid is a spookily timely play. During a period of significant global change – Brexit and Trump happened mid-way through writing the script – it seems that playwright David Lane had a prescient sense of which way the wind was blowing, creating a production that deals with one of the most pressing and defining themes of the current moment. Storytelling and the ‘war on truth’ have gripped national and international politics and dominated the headlines. Donald ‘Fake News’ Trump is a reality show star who continues to construct a narrative about his life like it’s a TV show. In just the past couple of weeks, the American president and his administration have whipped up baseless conspiracy theories about a ‘caravan of migrants’, communicated policy through a photoshopped Game of Thrones meme, and released a doctored video to justify a reporter’s ban, all shameless attempts to draw attention away from the mid terms and the 307th mass shooting in 311 days.
While people like Trump claim fact is fiction and make up stories to distract the media, a whole other world exists that we simply don’t see – Off the Grid exposes a human story hidden in plain sight. It’s an incisive, devastating, complex production that explores the role of truth and fiction in our personal lives, the stories we tell each other to make the world more palatable, and the dangers of withholding the truth.
Connor (Bradley Connor) and Kelly (Jesse Bateson) are 14 and 4 when their parents disappear (though “they were never really there, every bill, every zero-hour contract… grinding them down”). The play tells the story of the next ten years, alighting on significant moments during a decade of huge change and development for both children.
With Mum and Dad gone, Connor assumes the role of parent to his little sister, protecting her by spinning a story about themselves and the world around them. Connor is a visionary, with an intense belief in a radical, revolutionary, alternative way of living – why would he cooperate with or participate in a society that has failed his family? Kelly is his devoted disciple, covering the walls of whichever abandoned flat they’re living in with pictures of the future he describes.
What Connor is building is hope – which he wears “like a force field” – but to do that in a desperately hopeless situation requires completely retreating from reality. At first Kelly plays along, pretending, for instance, to take gulps of imaginary sandwiches from an empty lunchbox so teachers don’t suspect anything, but Connor’s narrative becomes obsessive, all-consuming and dangerous: the play offers a raw portrayal of the pressures poverty places on mental health. The constant responsibility of caring for Kelly increasingly becomes an obstacle for him as he grows into a young man, while Kelly becomes disenchanted, a non-believer in her brother’s fantasies.
Verity Quinn’s immersive design forces the audience to find a spot to sit or stand where they can, always exposed to the rest of the room and always under threat of being asked to move or hold something. Connor and Kelly are characters we might unknowingly walk past in the street, or hear about on the news, but in the play’s immersive environment, they cannot be ignored – director Chris Elwell refuses to let us be detached, passive observers.
Off the Grid is part gig-theatre, stages set up at either end of the performance space as Kelly and Connor take turns to tell their stories while the other accompanies them with music. Sound design helps to explore the siblings’ different perspectives on the same event, and the sometimes unreliable nature of their memories. An after-show Q&A reveals composer Guy Connelly’s intentions: the play’s theme, a song both Connor and Kelly sing, gradually degrades over the course of the productions, the sound of the siblings’ relationship fracturing; sudden sparks of grating noise interrupt the action to indicate jumps in time or glitches in memory.
Though I have little experience of the situation Off the Grid depicts, I – like many of us, I’m certain – have succumbed to the lure of fiction, recently re-reading the Harry Potter series in a conscious effort to escape the news. But, in exposing Connor and Kelly’s story, Off the Grid is an ultimately hopeful reminder of our responsibility to be civically engaged, and to use our imaginations not to avoid the world, but to dream of how we can change it for the better.
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