Popular culture often gets derided by critics because, unlike many of the so-called ‘great’ works of art (you know, the ones that allegedly make you look good when ‘appreciated’), crowd-pleasers are genuinely loved and enjoyed by lots of people. It's possible to argue, though, that we're actually better judged by what's genuinely popular with the masses rather than what's necessarily acquired by Tate Britain; not least because that popularity suggests there must be some wider cultural resonance underneath.
For spoken word poet and Canterbury Laureate Dan Simpson, there's such a subtext in Pac-Man - one of the earliest popular computer games when such things were still largely confined to big clunky machines found in arcades. But it is not the ever-hungry, yellow Pac-Man which is the focus of Simpson's new show; it's the four 'ghosts' which are Pac-Man's opposition in the maze. Specifically, the Orange Ghost.
Launched in Japan in the early 1980s, Pac-Man was a truly global phenomenon, translated into numerous languages during its history. As Simpson points out, however, the Orange Ghost was always 'the odd one out in the family'; called things like Stupid, Slow, Cry Boy or Clyde. It was also, despite any suggestions to the contrary, programmed to run away from Pac-Man at the last minute rather than move in for the kill; just as well, of course, as either the last ghost destroying Pac-Man or Pac-Man destroying the last ghost would automatically end the game.
Utilising a mix of 'lectures' (jacket on), poems (jacket off) and a short SF story written when he was 10 years old, Simpson explores the idea that we're all Clyde at times, feeling that we're being forced down the wrong path in the maze that is life, hemmed in by emotional walls constructed by ourselves and by others. Simpson is honest enough to admit that, for much of his young adult life, he was stuck in that maze thanks to various weird decisions he'd made as a teenager - no longer able to openly embrace the things he loved as he had as a child, and ashamed of his geeky interests (Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example).
It's all quite clever, frequently amusing; not least his use of a flip-chart as an aide memoire to perform another poem. There were also the small plastic models of Clyde (as seen in the show's posters), who bizarrely added real pathos to the proceedings with their fixed, identical expressions.
This is a show which certainly makes you think about Pac-Man in a different way. On the afternoon I saw it, Simpson seemed to be just a little bit too hurried in his delivery - not always pausing for breath between poems and subsequent monologue. But perhaps that's only to be expected; once you start a game of Pac-Man, after all, it's non-stop all the way!