Venture Theatre Company
Trinity Uniting Hall
Until 06 Apr 2019

Review by Sarah Westgarth

The Director’s Notes for ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma’ describe a tumultuous production process, including a change from their originally planned show, and a rehearsal period of setbacks and challenges. Not entirely uncommon for amateur theatre companies, and unfortunately, this lack of smooth sailing does show on stage here. The performance is nowhere near as polished as it needs to be, which is a shame because it’s clear the cast are committed. That being said, even if was tighter in its execution, their success would still be limited. The ham-fisted script by Matthew Lynch takes an interesting, complex concept, and injects it with hacky clichés, little to no character development, and a complete absence of subtlety. Ostensibly a thriller, there is little urgency to the plot, despite the fact that the situation is literally life or death. Five strangers are thrown into a prison cell for unknown reasons, only to discover they are part of a bizarre social experiment designed to bring out their true natures and provoke them to change their ways. The tone varies widely from a light-hearted comedy to outbursts of violence, and a real sense of narrative drive is missing; it ultimately fails to be as compelling as it wants to be.

The cast do appear to be trying hard, but it’s difficult when they have so little to their characters, and have few lines that resemble anything like normal human dialogue. None of them seem to have the strongest grasp of their material either, and there are a number of line stumbles—though they do recover quickly. Their characterisation does not have a lot of nuance either; there’s little in their expressions and body language that appears natural. No one feels believable as a person, and there are some line readings that seem to not understand the meaning behind the words—not to mention one truly ludicrous accent that appears towards the end. Kristy Mundy has the strongest presence of them all, but she’s given little to do, and her arc lacks a true emotional payoff. Luke Wagner also commands the stage well, and is at his best when in the comedic moments, delivering the light-hearted banter with a charming ease, but he lacks the intensity needed to make his more dramatic moments really land.

That tends to be a problem throughout; the energy never takes off, and the stakes never seem particularly high, or even real. This is partly due to the fact that none of the characters ever really behave or talk like human beings would in this situation. Ten minutes after they've been promised a fate of death or millions of dollars, they're having casual chats with each other about their dating life. A couple of times there's an outburst of emotion, but it always feels unearned and unnatural. The technical aspects of the production are all serviceable—the costumes in particular work really well—but the limitations of the venue mean not much can be done to set the mood in terms of lighting, which is a shame.

All up, ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma’ ends up feeling undercooked, in terms of both the source material and the production itself. That being said, there’s enough twists and surprises, and a fairly decent number of laughs, to be stay relatively entertaining throughout; the play is definitely at its best when it’s trying to be funny, even though the humour is probably inappropriate for the actual situation it portrays. At only 70 minutes, it also never drags. Just don’t think about the logistics of the premise for too long, or look for any real human psychology.

Luke Wagner is a reviewer for the Adelaide Theatre Guide.