Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure Books, where you got to pick what happens at the end of each page? Nathan Penlington does. In fact, his love of them is so abiding that he bought, for £41.01 on ebay, second-hand copies of the first 106 books in the series. It was a purchase that changed his life - but how his life changed is up to you. Penlington has created a format in which the audience, thanks to little remotes they are given as they enter the theatre, can vote on how they think their hero should proceed in his own documentary. Their choice decides the next piece of footage: there are 1566 possible combinations. Maybe some versions are rubbish but judging from the funny, touching, stratospherically human production I saw, that seems pretty unlikely.
I was a little sceptical to begin with. Towards the beginning of the performance, the unique audience-choosing-the-story feature wasn’t used all that much and when it was, some of the clips seemed to be entertaining filler rather than the body of the show. I began to worry that it was just an elaborate gimmick. How wrong I was. Once the story really kicked off, there was a mystery, there was a goal, there are plenty of dilemmas - it began to really matter which button you pressed. You dither for as long as you can, wanting to see both options. You become deeply invested both in Penlington’s tale, and the role you play in it.
The thing that makes this show exceptional is the kind of story it tells. It’s not the rollicking intergalactic and hyper-dimensional quest of the original Choose Your Own Adventure books. It’s much closer to home than that. It’s perhaps not surprising, given the Dungeons and Dragons nature of the books, that this show is really about what it’s like being the nerdy kid, the shy kid, the one who has trouble making friends and what it takes to grow out of that stage of life. This subject matter is explored gently and subtly, and it makes the show so, so much more than its ingenious format.
You have just read this glowing review of ‘Choose Your Own Documentary by Nathan Penlington’. Do you a) ignore it and browse some other shows, b) immediately book a ticket or c) turn up to every performance wearing a t-shirt with Nathan Penlington’s face on? It’s up to you. Choose wisely.