Family game night meets theatre with a social conscience, World Factory combines audience participation, ensemble work and technology to provide a fast-paced night out. A performance piece based around textiles factories in China, it explores the industry from its collapse in the UK to the eventual fate of the clothes. Four wall-sized screens, display interviews with real factory workers, quotes and, during the main portion of the evening, footage from inside the factory, giving a real sense of being surrounded by this world. The audience are split into groups – the ‘factories’ the title alludes to – scattered throughout the space, divided by catwalks and filing cabinets. The set provides layers and shape to the space, allowing the cast a dynamism of movement that adds action and interest to what they are telling us. We are constantly darting their heads around the room to see where the next cast member will start speaking from, as they leap to the top of steps or run between sides of the room.
The performance kicks off with a series of impassioned monologues, taken from real-life speeches by Thatcher (Lucy Ellinson) and Regan (Jamie Martin). Martin in particular shines, demonstrating an excellent grasp of both Regan’s charisma and the more down-trodden ex-factory worker he plays later in the show.
The majority of the show is devoted to a game in which each audience table runs a factory. We are given workers, a start-up allowance and a card to get the decisions rolling. It is both tremendous fun and an impressive feat of organisation and technology – there are only four cast members, and they must keep track of four ‘factories’ each, handing out new cards, products (we are given items of clothing that our factory has ‘made’) and workers to each table. It is intensely engaging, and many of the decisions – should we hire new workers or increase wages? – provide intense debate and discussion.
World Factory is a bilingual performance – the actors speak to us in both Mandarin and English, and the slogans pumped out of tinny speakers by our tables switch between the two languages. This is a show interested in absorbing you fully into its world – when the workers go home for Spring Festival, the lights go off in the room and we are forced to wait for their return. This provokes restless chatter from the audience, a lull in the action that perhaps goes on for too long – a rare misstep in a production where timing (bar a few technical errors) is extremely precise. The whole production is extremely thoroughly researched, and although this is apparent in every element of the show its full impressiveness is only demonstrated at the end.
As our factories finish their year, the final figures for each are shown on the big screens. This prompts cheers as the audience see who has performed well, and cheerful banter and sideways glances with those who sacrificed ethics for productivity. The accuracy is startling – each audience member comes away with a printout telling them, for example, how much water they have used down to the litre. It all feels very physical and very real, and although the audience is full of laughter, growing bolder as the show progresses, the end does not let you forget that, for many people, these are real decisions that have to be made, decisions which have a direct impact on the world around us.
World Factory is a production that is not afraid of asking the big questions, and an hour of making decisions shows the audience exactly how complicated some of these questions are. At the end the audience are asked to choose the path of their factory’s future, and although this is a satisfying end to the show, it is perhaps a disservice to the rest of it to provide such simplified options.
When the audience leaves they are still vigorously debating amongst themselves, environment vs. people, ethics vs. profit, and the possible cost of going forward no matter what.