Choose Your Own Documentary

2:12 pm in Featured, Review by EVNT

On the face of it Choose Your Own Documentary shouldn’t work. Described as ‘Part stand-up, part film documentary and part spoken word’ and inspired by the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ children’s books, the only thing I could be sure of before the show started was that part of its narrative trajectory would be dictated by the audience. Beyond that I was left to wonder how something as innately subjective as a documentary could be meaningfully effected by the whims of its audience; how much control would we be given? Surely our choices would be no more than arbitrary? How could a story be faithfully related with 50 strangers at its helm?

For those that aren’t familiar with the concept, ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ is a series of children’s books created in the late 70′s by Edward Packer, each book allowing the reader to become the protagonist of the story and to determine its outcome. They were massively popular during the 80′s and 90′s and Nathan Penlington counted himself among the series’ biggest fans- so much so, in fact, that a few years ago he decided to buy all 106 books in the series on Ebay. The initial outlay for this nostalgic indulgence was just £40, but as he began to trawl through each adventure, a more startling and entirely unexpected story developed that would end up costing him a lot more.

Hidden within one of the books were four pages of diary, written by a young boy over 20 years ago. Penlington became so obsessed with these pages that he embarked on a mission to reunite them with their owner, resolving to document his quest on film and to stay true to the formula of the books when it came to retelling his story.

We are told this by Penlington himself, who acts as our guide for the evening- firstly explaining how and why he embarked on the project before playing us the documentary itself, stopping it at various junctures to give us the opportunity to pick the next strand of the story. Each member of the audience is armed with a small remote control and given the chance to vote for what they want to happen next. Whichever option gets the most votes is the route we take, whether its where Nathan should go or who he should talk to next on his quest to reunite the diary with its owner, we are in complete control.

What unravels is a heart-rending, thoughtful and poignant story of self-discovery, escapism and, of course, adventure and what makes it so special is the way in which the audience’s choices are pivotal to the outcome of the story. From the initially arbitrary choices Penlington offers us, our collective decisions become more and more important, until the entire make up of the journey is dependent on our next move. To give you an idea of its scale, Penlington tells us that there are over 1500 permutations of the story- a dizzying prospect compared to the four or five choices you’d get to make in the books. It’s an incredibly brave decision to put something which obviously means so much to him in the hands of a different audience every night and the relief on his face is palpable when we choose our final scene- the first time in the run that the show has reached the conclusion that, I hope, is meant to be its natural and intended one.

Penlington’s greatest strength as a story teller is the sensitivity and pathos with which he approaches the subject of reuniting someone with a potentially painful aspect of their past. As the story progresses he reveals parts of his own past, offering the audience the chance to delve into his difficult childhood, giving an insight into why these diary pages held such a strong sway over him. The dual narrative of his own struggles with growing up and the mystery surrounding the unhappiness expressed in the pages of the diary turn what could be a voyeuristic exercise into a uniquely immersive and human experience. Not only are you part of an audience Choosing Your Own Adventure, you’re doing it in the knowledge that your decisions will reap meaningful and fascinating rewards.