Choose Your Own Documentary began when self-confessed obsessive Nathan Penlington bought a job lot of children’s books on eBay: 106, to be precise, for the bargain price of £44.01. Nathan was finally the proud owner of the complete set of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Books’. Inside one of the books he found a diary with some very curious details. The books had previously belonged to Terrence John Prendergast, an enigmatic figure who soon captured Penlington’s imagination. He becomes obsessed with Terrence and embarks upon an adventure of his own to find Terrence and reunite him with his books and his past.
In case you aren’t familiar with the 1980s ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ series, these books offered children an adventure that they could control entirely. Choose Your Own Documentary borrows the model of multiple plotlines and endings and has, apparently, 1,566 possible stories and over 30 different characters to meet. The audience whittle these down by answering a series of multiple choice questions on a keypad as the story progresses, with Penlington’s opening warning ringing in their ears: this could all end suddenly, and badly, if we make a wrong choice, so choose wisely.
The possibilities are as endless as this show’s appeal. Penlington is an extremely likable performer who captures the hearts of his audience from the outset as an adorable, geeky and earnest storyteller. Choose Your Own Documentary – which can only be described as an amalgamation of a Louis Theroux documentary, a Don Quixote quest, a self-help book, and ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, all squeezed into a children’s book formula – is a really quirky and inventive piece of theatre with a fun interactive element. The digital aspects don’t feel gimmicky – they really enhance the audience’s experience.
Writer/performer Penlington guides us through the decision making process as we choose his fate. The search for Terrence soon becomes a journey of self-discovery as Penlington is forced to look back into his own troubled childhood. The one-man show is punctuated with some really well-made documentary film clips and lots of laughs. There’s bucketfuls of nerdiness, ’80s nostalgia, and childhood reminiscence but also an undeniable darkness, taking the edge off the potential saccharine sweetness nicely. While, thankfully, the audience I was in selected a happy ending, there is an ominous feeling that things could have been very different if the majority of us had pressed a different button. The books the show is based on featured gruesome potential endings such as death by mutant bear mauling but fortunately the closest to peril we get is the ‘worst car chase on film’.
The show did lose its pace towards the middle but perhaps the audience should take the blame for this for choosing to visit the self-help guru rather than the graphologist, or for visiting Nathan’s old underage drinking haunts rather than his family home. The ending I saw was heartwarming but I want to go back and see all the combinations. Choose Your Own Documentary is a really sweet little show that is guaranteed to leave you smiling – as long as you choose wisely.
Tour details at ChooseYourOwnDocumentary.com
- By Nathan Penlington, Fernando R Gutiérrez De Jesus, Sam Smaïl and Nick Watson
- Soho Theatre, London
- Until 16 February 2014 (then on tour)
- Time: 19.15
- Review by Rowena Hawkins
- 7 February 2014
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