‘Lights Over Tesco Carpark’ review – “equal parts inspired and bonkers”

Charles Britton is abducted by laughter in 'Lights Over Tesco Carpark'

When I heard that there was a student play called Lights Over Tesco Car Park being produced in Oxford, my head was filled with possibilities of what it could be. When I discovered that it was in fact an absurdist work from Poltergeist Theatre framed around audience participation featuring that familiar haunt of students shopping for their milk and ginger nuts, and that it was going to be about hypothetical alien sightings, I knew it was something I needed to see for myself. Fortunately, behind that concept, equal parts inspired and bonkers, lies a play which feels as fresh and unique as it does alien.

From the minute it begins, Lights Over Tesco Car Park wants to confound its audience. The sketches dart ambitiously from phone calls accompanied by miming out the apparition of an alien spaceship, to entire scenes where not a single word is spoken and a child plays endearingly with a flying saucer sweet, all in an attempt to reconstruct what happened during the alien sightings. It is a surreal experience, to say the least. Lights gives you very little to go on, minimal sense of space or time, or anything in the way of plot, and yet it provides plenty to keep the imagination buzzing. I also maintain that this play finds the best use for flying saucers that I have ever seen, transforming a subpar sherbet sweet into everything from an impromptu light filter to a metaphor for human stories. The writing is gleefully absurd. Staging, while very simple, is effective at keeping the audience in the dark, mimicking a sterile interview room, as if we are merely observing an investigation.

That is, until we become part of the interrogation. What sets Lights apart from other student comedies, and its most well-executed asset, is its dedication to audience participation. What is most impressive is how this technique is employed not purely for laughs, but is central to the narrative. The best examples of this are when an audience member has an identity forced upon them, is patronised by an interrogator, and, since they do not know what the actors will ask them and must therefore improvise, they unwittingly fill the position of a traumatised victim trying to recollect what they saw. They do the actors’ work for them. This is audience participation done right. By the end of the play, everybody in the audience knew exactly how to respond to the characters onstage, via commands conveyed to them through minimal instruction.

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Above all, Lights just exudes an aura of hilarity, provoking more than a few laughs. Some scenes make it evident just how much fun the cast and crew had producing this gem, such as a scene in which the characters riff off ludicrous headlines they found on the internet. In trying to uncover the mystery of the extra-terrestrial sightings, the investigators expose themselves as being just as weird, if not weirder, than the threat they are tracing.  Lights Over Tesco Car Park revels in the ridiculousness of human life.

If I had to offer any criticism, I would say that, for the admittedly low price of a ticket, some spectators would expect a longer running time: the production is criminally short. With the creative talent on show here, it would not have been impossible to include a few more sketches, even if just to get a few more audience members involved before the play draws to a close.

Overall, Lights Over Tesco Car Park is a bemusing play. This type of production will not appeal to everyone, but for those willing to be confused and surrender themselves to the madness, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had here and a lot to inspire one to try and make sense of the absurdity. Lights’ glowering achievement is that, in its manipulation of its audience, it constantly asks us to re-evaluate whether we were the aliens all along. What is truly alien in Lights are the interactions we have with each other, our encounters with strangers and friends alike.

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