Considering the grandness and scale of this project’s diegesis, it initially feels as if the creators might better thrive with a hundred-person animation team and a seven-figure budget. (You’ll notice I’ll keep writing ‘etc.’ or ‘among others’ to keep this review reined-in.) Eventually, it makes an embarrassment of the countless blockbusters, state-of-the-art video games and grandiose sets which wilt in comparison to this paper town in this tiny theatre. Simply put, this has no right to be as moving, terrifying and funny as it is.
There is a lot to get through here… so, to explain the format as briefly as possible, the twenty-or-so crowd line the perimeter of a sort of 3D paper map of a town, scattered with broken plastic from toys. This map evolves as the performance goes on, not unlike in the game SIMCITY (buildings are crushed, blood-like liquid is spilled, candyfloss trees appear etc.) Two speakers narrate the evolution, reciting interviews with inhabitants of the town/world in front of us, either playing interviewer or one of the dozens of different characters. It’s a bit like watching a hologram of a mental John Dos Passos novel.
Now, the content is somehow a curation of data gathered from a handful of primary schools around the Devon area, so a realist, sociological angle emerges. This is the sort of concrete base something as outlandish as this requires. And, to begin with, the narrators describe pseudo-real happenings of public figures in Exeter: Paul Tisdale, the football club’s manager; the mayor, ‘McGahey’s’ the historic tobacconist among many others. So, the gulf between the crowd and the other-worldly performance is really not so great. This pitiful reviewer asked for a pen at the (lovely) bar before the performance and was aptly fingered out in the narration, ‘…went to the Wetherspoons, WHO HAD PENS AND PAPER’ *gestures obviously toward me, cowering in the corner.* There’s no doubting this is otherworldly but there’s an obvious attempt to project it onto the extremely local.
Everything has a sort of quantum simultaneity, like multiple universes layered on top of each other. It all impossibly occurs in one day, as the narrators repeatedly mention (the day is today, March 22nd.) And it is Exeter, and yet it’s a whole microsystem of disparate, extreme cultures (Sweetlandia, Darkzone, Cloudworld, Satellite World etc.) The one rule of Sweetlandia is to ‘always be happy’, suggesting that happiness and fear might be two sides of the same coin. Watching on, often I feel like laughing and screaming in fear at the same time.
It’s a totally unbounded ambition fuelled by the unlimited imagination of children and it’s a wondrous success. Arguably, it might achieve even more had the curation of the plotlines been a little tighter, a little more refined and employed more rules – but that would be untrue to the nature of childhood: it’s a catch-22, children don’t much care for succinctness. Admittedly, that excuse won’t hold up for some viewers but it frees the performance to become something very rare indeed. A bewildering storm of the fears and hopes of a fantastic, real, paper world.