A challenge to everything. That is my lasting impression of 101, the new professional show from Oxford alumna Asia Osborne, which challenges theatre convention, social norms – and review attempts.

The first offering from director Osborne’s devised theatre company ONEOHONE is not really a play. It’s a half-hour interactive experience that changes every night. The audience is just as involved as the cast, who prefer to remain anonymous to preserve the element of surprise.

We sent two reviewers. They saw two completely different shows. Adam Bouyamourn was at the opening performance:

The producer warns: ‘The experience is quite intense. If at any point in the performance you should feel uncomfortable, you are asked to remove this white sash.’

Eighteen people are in a room; nine of them know what to expect.

The half-hour play proceeds like a Masonic ritual. We, the audience, face the cast in a small underground room. There is a courtly dance, and we pair with cast members, singing some old, broken hymn. We are alerted to the presence of a Usurper. He fights and defeats the King, who is reduced to a snarling heap; we kiss hands with the play’s new monarch. The King – now a blindfolded Machiavellian Gollum – contrives to wrest control from the Usurper. There are four possible outcomes. What happens depends on the audience.

This is what it is like to be a cultist. Your immediate what-the-fuck reaction sublimates into demure obedience. The ceremony evokes a strong emotional response that is heightened by your participation. You find yourself as a character in a familiar but unspecific power game. It is only on reflection that you understand how the actors, Zimbardo-like, procured your obedience.

Your entrance and your exit are suggested as the door is opened and the cast, frozen in tableau, glance urgently towards it. No explanation is forthcoming, but the images are profoundly symbolic. You leave almost entirely unable to express what you saw.

101 is scintillating experimental theatre – it’s a strange, elegant, almost numinous intellectualization

of an interaction between nine people and nine other people. It is an exercise in challenging what theatre is – specifically, what it is to be an audience member.

Usually one sits, reaches for a snack, drifts off, shares a wry observation with a neighbour, even grunts appreciatively – but here, we are dragged, lifted, escorted, danced with, hugged. It is an audience member who, at the King’s whispered suggestion, asphyxiates a member of the cast; an audience member who defeats the Usurper; it is the audience who legitimises each monarch with the words: ‘They are loves I give to you.’

There is no stage, there are no seats: there are just eighteen people in a room.

We were intrigued. Who came up with the idea? Had anything like this been done before? And why, of all places, choose Oxford, a bastion of conservatism? Before sending our second reviewer we asked 101 producer Chris Thursten some questions.

Where does the name ONEOHONE come from?

The company name came from the name of the show – 101 – which is our
signature piece. The name denotes simplicity and the importance of fundamental principles.

Who are the people behind ONEOHONE?

ONEOHONE was founded by [Oxford students and alumni] Asia Osborne, Christopher Thursten, Elle Rushton, Ellie Tranter and Harry Creelman in September 2009.

Why did you found ONEOHONE?

The purpose of the company is to explore new, democratic approaches to theatre. The techniques developed in small-scale, intimate performances like 101 will feed directly into our larger, scripted productions.

What does the future hold for ONEOHONE?

101 will continue to be performed in Oxford and London on an ongoing basis while we develop the first in a series of full-scale productions. We’re looking to expand the company and are auditioning in January. Contact information on the website.

What are your main influences?

We admire the work of companies like Punchdrunk and Complicite.

Our curiosity was piqued, but not satisfied. Punchdrunk, the company cited by ONEOHONE as an influence, is famous for its interactive adaptations of classical texts from Shakespeare or Sophocles. 101, however, is the completely original product of its company, and has no single script, but several distinct storylines. Could the cast cope with the challenge of putting on a different show every night? Tara Isabella Burton reviewed the following evening’s scenario:

It is difficult to give a grade to 101. After all, for much of the show’s 45 minutes the roles were reversed.

Blindfolded, this audience member was first appraised, then adopted, then trained as a kind of bipedal puppy by one cast member who played the role of my master.

While in traditional theatre one expects to see the actors transforming on stage, undergoing psychological pressures that fundamentally change them, in this production it is the audience that is asked to do the same.

It’s a surprisingly effective transformation at that. At first eager to be a helpful part of the production, I gladly came forward, rolled over, turned around, and pawed at my master’s hands on command. Rewarded by a scratch on the head or a chime of ‘Good Boy,’ I began to take pride in my actions and try even harder to perform them as they grew in difficulty.

Things grew more sinister, however. My master was snatched away and I was left to fend for myself amid the sounds of violence and snarling. While I could not see, I could hear far less kind masters berating their audience-pets.

I was decidedly unnerved by one actor’s brutal commands – his poor ‘dog’, I fear, far more so. Although the pace grew somewhat monotonous after twenty minutes, this should not be attributed to the cast’s consummate skill, but to the energy of that particular audience.

As an exercise in forced transformation, 101 succeeded admirably. The concept was an interesting one, and the initial energy striking. The performance may well vary depending on their enthusiasm, but I imagine 101 can work its magic on even the most reticent of audiences.

four stars out of five

So far, the spell holds. 101 continues in London until 13th December; more performances from this company are expected in Oxford in the spring.

Reviews – Adam Bouyamourn and Tara Isabella Burton
Text – Maximus Marenbon