The rising trend in ‘poverty porn’ suggests that there’s money in laughing at, scorning at and ultimately punishing the socially and economically deprived. Mike Bartlett’s highly inventive new play imagines this tendency to its extreme, and leaves us wondering how far we are from this unsavoury conclusion. 

Game envisions a society in which people have to surrender their fundamental rights of privacy and shelter from fear in order to get onto the property ladder.

Game envisions a society in which people have to surrender their fundamental rights of privacy and shelter from fear in order to get onto the property ladder. In this case, a young Scouse couple find a place with a jacuzzi and funky furniture for an amount of money they can afford – the only teeny caveat being that the place is lined with two-way mirrors and visitors are invited to come in and shoot them with tranquilizer guns at any time. Needless to say, the Big Brother house springs to mind in more ways than one.

This of course creates an unsettling relationship between actors and audience; we are sat around all four edges of the glass-lined home-box, unable to see the other spectator-sections. The walls are lined with army-nets that recall African hunting trips – a blood-hungry pursuit of the middle-class – and we’re linked to the action via headphones. Our complicity is painfully intimate – we see everything they get up to – yet strangely detached. Their pain is delivered as ‘stats’ that trivially pop up on a screen, quantified and stripped of meaning.

The couple are ‘performers’ according to their worker-status, and their world is indeed a stage. Jibes to each other to ‘stop showing off’ implicitly express their awareness of their objectification. Being shot soon becomes par for the course; they just get back up and carry on just like a video game, but we suspect the wounds are settling in somewhere deeper.

The visiting ‘customers’ are all excellently cast; it’s not just rich folk that make up the sadistic revellers, but ordinary people up for ‘fun’. Quite troublingly, there’s a sexual axis to their entertainment, many indulging fantasies as they not so coincidentally catch the ‘performers’ in the act. The couple on the other hand are just trying to have a baby, to get on with their lives – it’s only the context of our peeping that makes it seedy.

It’s amazing how quickly we forget who’s watching and what we’re giving up. When a child enters the family home, he cowers inside a cardboard box in the fear of being ‘shot’, as he’s now the prime target (him being the most vulnerable after his mother, presumably). It’s not long though before he’s playing on his own games-console, falling prey to the very power dynamic we’re all party to.

The most interesting character is the guard of the complex – played by the excellent Kevin Harvey – who’s a troubled army vet torn between his job and his conscience. Rather than the architect of this horrific power structure, we soon realise that he too is limited by circumstance, another subject institutionalised by the surveillance state.

The play falls down as an in-depth character study, more preoccupied with the greater impacts of the system as a whole – us included. However, the production itself is incredibly provocative and enlightening, and a real must-see for anyone concerned about the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Reviews by Emma Banks

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The Blurb

In a housing crisis, a young couple are offered a home of their own. But at what price?

The world premiere of this provocative new play by Mike Bartlett invites us to spy on a family as they embark upon a dangerous new way to live.

Game audiences will see the Almeida auditorium radically transformed in a production that offers an unnervingly intimate viewing experience.

This production reunites writer Mike Bartlett (Earthquakes in London, Cock, King Charles III) with acclaimed director-designer duo Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether (Wild Swans, Sucker Punch, My Child, generations).