Current affairs and arts journalism by Yasmin Morgan-Griffiths
“I’m Nathan Penlington, and I’m an obsessive…”
No, this isn’t a support group, but an introduction to one of the most fresh and innovative shows you will see at the Fringe. In an age which is increasingly defined by audience interactivity, many shows are aiming to give their audience more choice over what they are viewing. And you’d be hard pressed to find more choices in one show than in Choose Your Own Documentary.
As you enter the venue, you are presented with a miniature voting controller. “You don’t have to point it at the telly, this isn’t the 1980s,” Nathan points out as we wave our remotes like a convention of near-blind septuagenarians. This gadget will be your means of navigation as you stumble blindly through the more than 1500 different versions of the adventure that is about to unfold.
Every version of the show begins with the same obsession. Nathan’s lifelong love affair with the Choose Your Own Adventure book series, penned by the genre-bending author Edward Packard in the 1980s, leads him to buy the entire first 106 book series second-hand off Ebay. But his fixation turns from the books themselves to the cryptic, often hilarious marginalia scrawled by the then-teenage Brummie owner, Terence Prendergast. More compelling still, from one of the books falls the pages of a diary, detailing what seems to be young Prendergast’s dramatic struggle with teenage angst, including hints of a runaway to Scotland, and even some haunting mentions of dabbling in drugs and weapons.
Part one-man standup show, part film documentary, the show presents the audience with a range of vital choices that will determine whether you will find Terence and unlock the meaning behind his diary – or whether the adventure will take an entirely different path.
“The show can be quite absurd,” Nathan admits when I meet up with him after the performance for a chat. “There are some adventurous choices and some quite stupid choices, so it can be quite a comic show. But it can also be quite emotional and there’s some quite revealing stuff in there.”
“During one show, the audience had quite an emotional first half, but then it ended up with me in my swimming trunks onstage,” Nathan tells me, describing the multitude of surprising and eccentric twists the show can take.
It’s not only Nathan’s endearing performance as an awkward detective that makes the show a joy to watch. Among the wacky characters you could meet on this meandering investigation are a batty graphologist, an amicable and very beardy expert in ancient Middle Eastern diaries, and even the legendary Edward Packard himself.
As entertaining and empowering as it is to be presented with such a wealth of choice, you can’t help second-guessing your decisions throughout the entire show. You desperately want to find Terry Prendergast and discovery the story behind his tortured diary entries. But you’re also dying to know what would happen if Nathan were to find his childhood crush and give her the Choose Your Own Adventure style love letter he never gave to her when he was 13 years old.
For those of you who may have had cringeworthy experiences of being asked to participate in stage shows, Nathan tries to make the experience as painless as possible. “I think it has to be done in a way so that people don’t feel put on the spot too much,” he says.
The show is so effective that it keeps you wondering about what might have been even after it’s all over, cleverly tempting you back to experience different choices. Of course, this isn’t an option for those who don’t have a large sum to spend over the festival. If you only have the chance to see it once, it can feel like the version you saw was the only logical progression of events. I felt that opportunities to make choices were more sparse towards the end, making me feel as though Nathan had somehow planned this all along.
“We’ve had people coming out going, ‘OK, that was some sort of fraud,’ and thinking that there’s only one way through the show,” he says with disappointment, “which in a way is annoying because of how messy my head is when I’m onstage, but it means I’m telling the stories in the right way, I think.”
This doesn’t take away from the fact that the show is lighthearted and funny. For all its comedy value, it is also genuinely gripping; I clapped a hand to my mouth more than once. Although the premise of the show could be esoteric for those who have no interest or knowledge of the retro book series, Nathan communicates his passion so effectively that anyone can relate – a vital trait for those who choose to go into film making.
Being a novice documentary maker himself, Nathan has some advice for those who want to bring their own passion to the camera. “I think it’s about being open to possibilities, being open to storylines you weren’t necessarily expecting,” he says.
“During the creative process you can narrow yourself down, and that’s when you find yourself trapped by the desire to tell the story you want to tell in the best way. But I also think you should take risks. Like I said, this could easily not have worked, but I think it worked so well because of those moments of jeopardy.”
Nathan is working on book and smartphone adaptations of Choose Your Own Documentary, so even if you don’t get to experience every ending, the entire picture will hopefully become clear. But there really is nothing like experiencing the show live, so I urge you to get down to the Gilded Balloon, bring a friend whose arm you can clutch during those shocking plot twists, and get ready to make some good decisions.
Originally published on the Edinburgh University English Literature Pre-Honours Blog - access via EASE only.