This review is tinged by the regret that I missed last year’s much-lauded Lights Over Tesco Car Park, and all the hope and expectation which accompanies it. As such, this is the first encounter I have had with Poltergeist Theatre, the award-winning, now New Diorama-sponsored theatre company which is composed entirely of Oxford grads. It’s hard to follow up a great breakthrough act: but, despite (fortunately or unfortunately) having seen the former to compare it to, all I can say is that Art Heistis intensely watchable. 

Art Heist is continually playful and inventive, exploring the possibilities of what it can do rather than what it should, trading strict sensibility for a sense of fun. This is largely to its benefit: there is little continuous narrative, and none of it makes a huge amount of sense, but neither of these points really feel like they matter.

The primary conceit is simple: three thieves attempt to steal a priceless painting on the same night, each with different levels of experience and motivation, each unwitting of the other. At times it seems to tease something deeper – there is a touching monologue about the value of a coin, anecdotes regarding famous artworks, and a beautiful description of a pastoral scene described by security guard Alice; but as soon as this is mentioned it’s inverted immediately once again, as if in danger of becoming too serious. Those hoping for the moral which is teased in both the description and show itself will likely be disappointed. But the sentimentality isn’t an afterthought – there’s a genuine heart to the production, a sense that each character believes wholly in what they’re doing and their individual purpose.

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If anything, the narrative feels somewhat more akin to a Dragons & Dungeons game than a traditional story – the choose-your-own-adventure methodology works, for the most part, and rightfully descends into chaos when control is wrested away. The sense of making it up as they go adds to the charm of the individual heist members, as their characters are quickly cobbled together with the lightest sense of control.

When there is a turn from the continually playful tone to something darker, it is incredibly effective – so much so that I wish it was done a little more. The audience interaction which occurs periodically throughout serves to break up what there is of a narrative, successfully breaking the fourth wall between the performers and audience (though not appearing to serve much purpose beyond inducing mild embarrassment). Eventually, the audience interaction builds to a climax, though even at its clearest its purpose still feels somewhat opaque. None of the confusion detracts from the show’s sheer entertainment value, however, and its slick and skilful execution ensures professional control has a hold over something that could quickly have devolved into an unintended mess.

Most inventive are the multimedia elements of the production – an on-stage video camera is used plentifully, detailing humorous close-ups and side-action, enabling the parallel narratives which run at the show’s heart to be efficiently displayed. Usefully, it also allows members of the audience at the back to see what is happening at the bottom of the stage, although this action does sometimes still get lost due to the constraints of the venue. Lighting design is similarly well-planned, and of vital importance in a show whose central conceit, in classic Mission-Impossible fashion, revolves heavily around the use of laser sensors. A pitch-black scene in a hall of statues is particularly effective, with each thief-to-be freezing as a statue as soon as a torch is shone upon them.

Alice is an engaging narrator, and the characters are uniquely compelling in their own fashion. It’s not a show with a strong moral at its core – though it is often teased, just below the surface – but it does prove a slick and entertaining hour, and a worthy entry into the Poltergeist canon.

Art Heist is at New Diorama from the 15-26 October.