Choose Your Own Documentary

When author Edward Packard created the Choose Your Own Adventure genre in 1979, he probably didn’t expect their huge success. He would not have foreseen 185 releases, from 1979’s The Cave of Time until 1998’s Escape from the Haunted Warehouse. He certainly could not have predicted that they would have sold in excess of 250 million copies in that time either. However, if there was one outcome of Packard’s book that he could never have predicted, it was that one day his series would inspire a live Fringe documentary. As unlikely as that may have been in 1979, it is lucky for us that it did, as Choose Your Own Documentary is a great show. Part storytelling, part documentary, it makes for a gripping and heartfelt journey through one man’s obsession.

Part storytelling, part documentary, it makes for a gripping and heartfelt journey through one man’s obsession.

Choose Your Own Documentary tells the tale of Nathan Penlington, who one day, while reminiscing about his favourite childhood books, decides to buy 106 Choose Your Own Adventure books on Ebay. Inside these books he finds cryptic notes and distressing diary entries from the previous owner, named Terrance. The show then tells the tale of Penlington’s journey to find Terrance, and work out the mysteries hidden in these notes. But from then on, the plot of the show is completely unique. Acting as an interactive documentary, the audience, armed with remotes to cast votes, are given options to choose what clip is shown next. These range from where Penlington and his team go to find Terrance, who they speak to and even what they say - in all, 1566 different versions of the show can be seen.

The show is carried by the charm of the host. Penlington presents the show in an awkward but likable way, using a PowerPoint and video clips as an integral part of the humour. Before the documentary part starts, he presents a look back at why he loves Choose Your Own Adventure books so much. This is a funny, and much needed for the uninitiated, look back at the series, that includes a wonderful run down of Penlington’s favourite depressing sudden endings.

Of course, the risk of a show with 1566 endings, much like those from a Choose Your Own Adventure book, is that it can end badly, and at any time. Luckily for me, this did not happen, but Penlington repeatedly states that his show can and has ended very quickly in the past.

The documentary sections that dominate the show are, for the most part, reasonably well executed. Some of the filming leaves a lot to be desired, but the appeal of the host and the people filming (Fernando Gutierrez De Jesus, Sam Smaïl and Nick Watson) means that this does not matter. The dedication and obsession that these guys have for their quest makes for a charming watch.

Choose Your Own Documentary is a unique experience. While at times it was a little clunky with some technical problems hindering momentum, the charm and humour of the show and those involved in making it shone through. Obviously, a different audience could have a completely different experience from me. But, it is certainly worth the risk of a disappointing end. Choose Your Own Documentary is a funny, life-affirming and unique live experience, and one that comes highly recommended.  

Reviews by James Lillywhite

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The Blurb

Pages from a forgotten diary fall from a book you buy on eBay. What would you do? … You decide. Inspired by the 'Choose Your Own Adventure' phenomenon of the 1980s - 'Choose Your Own Documentary' tells the true story of Nathan Penlington's discovery of a diary and his attempts to unravel its many mysteries. Part stand-up, part film documentary and part spoken word, it’s a unique and compelling interactive experience in which the audience play the most important role.