Stages, a brand-new video game inspired musical makes its debut at VAULT Festival courtesy of writer Christian Czornyj and director, Adam Lenson. Challenging the norms of musical theatre, Stages takes the form of a ‘playable’ musical, allowing the audience to control the actions taken by the characters and the eventual outcomes.
It’s Aiden’s sixteenth birthday and his Mum has just been diagnosed with cancer. Although it’s never explicitly mentioned, the script leads us to believe that Aiden is autistic, and the repeatable and orderly nature of video games give him an escape from the difficulties of his own life, while his parents and sibling continue to support his needs throughout the difficult time.
The audience are involved by holding ‘controllers’, which are pieces of card printed red on one side and blue on the other. At various points, when a character has a decision to make, the audience hold their cards aloft indicating the preferred choice, and the musical progresses down the path chosen by the majority.
As is often the case in video games, but rarely in real life, there is a chance to retry when the game is over, and when this happens the audience then sees how all of the alternative choices play out. This effectively means that we always see the whole story, but the order in which it’s presented and the way each scene links to the next will, in all probability, be different each night.
The score is heavily inspired by the 8-bit music of classic video games, but while those tinny sounding tunes will have irritated entire generations, here they are supercharged to create an energetic and richly layered soundscape. Imagine the Super-Mario theme being played by an orchestra and you’ll get the kind of idea of what Stages has to offer. It sounds best in the touching ballads or ensemble numbers, as one or two sound just a little too frenetic; this is to represent Aiden’s mental state, but become difficult to enjoy fully.
The backdrop to the action is an LED screen, which I understand was constructed from ping pong balls and Christmas tree lights. Yet, it looks fantastic, reminiscent of those old video and arcade games that will always have a special place in many a heart. Adam Lenson’s video design achieves great things at low res, and there’s never any doubt as to what the scene should be.
Max Alexander-Taylor turns in a strong performance as Aiden, as an autistic actor himself, he does an incredible job of representing autism on stage. The best of the vocals come from Anna-Jane Casey as the Mum, while Aitch Wylie and Andrew Langtree also get moments to shine, with some powerful ballads. Naturally, it’s a heart breaking story but one that has been approached with sensitivity and bravery, and the cast of four do well in drawing out the audience’s empathy.
Stages is a story about family, and how tragic circumstances affect the family unit. But it approaches it in an entirely innovative way, the music and video design very cleverly places the audience in the heart of this ‘playable’ musical while still presenting a strong enough story to take us through to the final level.