Choose Your Own Documentary

Reporter: Charlotte Marshall, first published Thu 06 Feb 2014 12:15
Choose Your Own Documentary at the Soho TheatreChoose Your Own Documentary at the Soho Theatre/servlet/file/store5/item218570/version1/fileservice770/218570_770_preview.jpg

From magical mountains to mysterious underwater worlds, Edward Packard offered many a 1980s child the tantalising chance to make your own luck in his legendary Choose your Own Adventure series. Now one enthusiast is attempting to do the same for intrepid audiences. 

Granted, the most exotic location we reach in Nathan Penlington’s Choose Your Own Documentary is Birmingham, but there’s still enough intrigue, excitement and decision making to keep you glued to your seat for the 90 minute run of this part stand-up, part filmed documentary, part interactive experience.

Penlington begins by revealing to us how his journey into the world of film documentaries began on discovering a section of a stranger’s diary in a job lot of Choose Your Own Adventure books. A brief and heartbreakingly sad glimpse into the stranger’s teenage life, the entry ends: “Ellie. Drugs. Guns.”

This heady mix of intrigue and danger is enough to begin an obsession in the self-confessed obsessive’s mind and, alongside a group of filmmakers, he embarks on a journey to discover who this stranger is and what exactly he meant by those three provocative words.

This is where the audience comes in. Armed with remote controls – that, as Penlington points out, we don’t have to point directly at the screen as it’s now the 21st century – we are asked to vote at every twist and turn to determine what the intrepid Penlington should do next on his adventure.

From ringing old flames to seeking advice from psychics, each decision affects how the version of the story we witness on screen will pan out; evoking shouts of disagreement or cheers of victory as even this Tube strike-sized audience is drawn into the novelty of being able to control Penlington’s fate.

To say too much about the story would be to ruin – potentially anyway, perhaps you’d make completely differently decisions – the series of unexpected events that unfold through a mix of storytelling and film, but whatever decision your audience makes, the crux of it is likely to be more about Penlington than the mysterious diary keeper.

It’s not long into the show before you realise that that diary entry could have been written by Penlington as snippets of his own teenage life are revealed. Awkward, nervous and insecure, the adventure becomes as much about taking control of his own adolescent issues as it does solving the mystery.

While the man we meet today is charming and eloquent, an edge of nervousness remains that, combined with the intimacy of the show, makes you root for him with every press of the button.

As your final decision inevitably brings the adventure to a sudden close, you will have witnessed only one of 1556 possible adventures possible in this warm, witty and nostalgic show. But don’t worry, he’s here for two weeks, giving you plenty of time to change your mind, choose another option and sit back as another chapter unfolds. Whether it will lead to one of Packard’s famously dramatic endings – deaths by elephant or existential loneliness are two of my favourites – is up to you. You decide.