U.K. Review: "What If I Told You" at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

  • United Kingdom Critic

How audiences interact with live performance is something that is constantly evolving. A multitude of new formats and styles of presentation have been popping up across pieces everywhere, shaping and defining the experiences of spectators and instilling them with a quiet duty to share their experiences with others. This quality has been ingrained in theatre for as long as it has existed, but changes in how pieces are presented in recent years have become a catalyst for conversation. Leeds-based performer Pauline Mayers, head of The Mayers Ensemble and Associate Artist at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, has tapped into this ongoing stylistic shift in her new piece What If I Told You.

In What If I Told You, Mayers invites the audiences to drop their coats at the side of the performance, leave their drinks housed in plastic cups behind and join her on the stage. In the case of the performance I saw, this was in the Barber Studio, one of the Playhouse’s cavernous rehearsal spaces – and with a polite introduction and a few simple instructions, Mayers transforms this space into one of sharing, inclusion and stories. Part autobiography, part explosion of societal assumptions based on gender and colour, Mayers’ piece takes its audiences on a journey through her life through vignettes infused with movement and audience involvement.

What’s incredibly special to witness is how the spectator becomes an integral part of the piece. Mayers doesn’t ask her audience to perform specific roles or shape the direction of the piece, as is the case with some immersive theatre experiences. Instead, she creates a focused, inviting environment that prompts its audiences, through the intrigue of decoding the movement in her vignettes and harnessing the sense of collectivity in the space, to synthesise their own phenomenological experiences with the piece’s guide.

Indeed, as a guide, Mayers combines a sense of drive and calm in her approach to storytelling, and inspires her spectators to move on her journey with her. In the dark of this former rehearsal space, now a melting pot of ideas and stories, Mayers and director Chris Goode bring a pulsating vibrance that keeps spectators hooked and connected. Accompanying this vibrance is Penny Cunningham’s lighting design, which transforms the normally cavernous rehearsal space into a calm and considered performance environment. As a result, there is a pleasant feeling of being cut off from the outside world, and with such a feeling, the sense of being truly in the moment.

Mayers’ piece provides an evening of thought-provoking stories, and does it in such a way that its audiences feel compelled to carry out our human and innate quality of sharing stories. Her depictions of racism, loss and the evolution of society are carefully embedded within her vignettes, and the stories she tells are given real gravity, and in the calm and focus of her performance space, Mayers relishes in leaving her audiences to form their own interpretations on what her piece is truly about. The piece focuses on exploring race, colour and gender, but in keeping things well-structured and considered, Mayers asks the audience to search for something deeper: the feeling of having the responsibility to spark conversations as a result of this piece.

By the end of Mayers’ piece, I felt this energy in the room amongst my fellow spectators, with each person now instilled with this sense of duty. What If I Told You is a special piece that will stay with you, not only because of its topical and engaging conversation about its culturally reverberant themes, but because of its joy in igniting conversation and leaving its audiences inspired.

For more information on The Mayers Ensemble and tickets to future productions of What If I Told You, visit http://www.themayersensemble.org/