Completely different and absolutely bonkers, The Rules of Inflation is a party you’re unlikely to forget any time soon.
You’re invited to a party officiated by a nightmarish and controlling clown. Who will win musical chairs? What dance can you do with a balloon? And who will win the election in The Rules of Inflation?
I thought that Something Something Lazarus had been the most unorthodox and wild thing I’d seen recently. But a trip to the burgeoning Theatre N16 to see this piece devised by Joshua Webb, Bryony Cole, Emily Sitch, Bj McNeill, and Nastazja Somers, collectively know as Balloons Theatre. The pitch of The Rules of Inflation is to provide us with a satire on our political system, portrayed through a nightmarish children’s party, completely with games, cake, and a lot of balloons.
From the very beginning, you get the sense that that The Rules of Inflation is not as innocent as its veneer. But then, neither is politics. What follows is a series of games that are sometimes funny, but often unsettling and uncomfortable. It’s a great idea having political parties/persuasions reduced to four bickering and competitive children, controlled by a grotesque and unsavoury clown. It’s fun and satirical, but sets The Rules of Inflation for a completely mad and uneasy caprice. Although completely insane and seemingly uncontrolled, there’s are umpteen clues in little nuances that show that there is an intelligence and a motive that underpins The Rules of Inflation. Things like mopping up sick with a Union Jack flag are provocative and striking little touches that always point towards a scathing and ironic critique on the subject they’ve chosen. The pace is manic and the variety and absurdity of the games keeps you interested, even if through morbid curiosity. There’s so much going on that’s so weird that it’s actually difficult to completely disengage, even if The Rules of Inflation frustrates you, not to mention writing that inherently ensures its grip on your attention and your guard is seldom loosened.
However, the problem with The Rules of Inflation is that it’s not entirely clear what Balloons Theatre is trying to say with the piece. There is definitely a clear central set of themes about control and choice, but even then it’s not guaranteed that every audience member will pick up on this. Then, you can’t quite decided that, for everything else, whether The Rules of Inflation is trying to say too little or too much. This is perhaps the biggest, and only, critique of The Rules of Inflation. For a piece that’s as experimental and absurdist as this, it becomes even more important that despite bamboozling the audience they come away with at least a confident idea about what the piece was getting across. Alas, The Rules of Inflation is in danger of throwing more people off the scent than understanding its statement.
Yet, in saying all of that, The Rules of Inflation is a theatrical experience that is unforgettable. So much work has been put into the piece to unnerve and discombobulate the audience with a perview to provoke a point of view, from balls-out creepiness and outright oddness to pieces of awkward interaction that you just can’t escape from. You will leave disturbed, disorientated, and punch-drunk, and quite possibly completely confused. But the success of The Rules of Inflation is that you don’t just walk away from the play. After leaving the theatre, you firstly fathom what you’ve just witnessed, but then start piecing together what the show was trying to say. If the point of The Rules of Inflation is to illicit a response and conversation, then it certainly does its job.
The most exciting thing about The Rules of Inflation is just how imaginative and experimental it is. Companies like Balloons Theatre are examples of some of the most exhilarating and important things about fringe theatre: it pushes boundaries and thinking so outside the box that it ends up in a different Oyster zone altogether. Even if The Rules of Inflation goes completely over your head and you leave disgruntled rather than enlightened, you know you’ve just seen something wild and pioneering, and that in itself is something special.
Direction & Production
Much like the little nuances in the company’s writing, there are also touches across The Rules of Inflation that are deliberate and effective. The whole setting for The Rules of Inflation is decrepit and dirty, and the production has done a marvellous job of creating a filthy and failing party. Everything from the half-arsed inflated balloons dragging themselves along the floor to perhaps the most disgusting and filthy onesie ever to have graced the stage, all build a sense of twisted horror. Add to that a disquieting and oppressive sound design of disturbing music and party-song bombast, and neurotic and fitting lighting, the result is that Theatre N16 is turned into a chilling and debauched powder keg. Then, pace and atmosphere through movement and interaction are also very carefully thought out, keeping the audience constantly on their toes but also pushing the pace, making The Rules of Inflation as a piece of writing and theatre that knows exactly what it’s doing, even if the audience doesn’t.
There’s a wonderful little ensemble for The Rules of Inflation. All play their caricatured characters with enthusiasm and a lot of knowing. Their interactions with each other are also incredibly playful and fun, often bringing out much of The Rules of Inflation’s comic relief and off-kilter juxtapositions. There’s not a weak link among them, and each draws you in to their character’s quirks with tantalising aplomb.
Webb as the clown, however, does stand out among the company, partly because of the central role they have. None the less, Webb is petrifyingly frightening to be in the company of, to the point I was almost afraid to shake his hand afterwards! Manipulative, predatory, and volatile, if you didn’t enter Theatre N16 with coulrophobia, you may end up leaving with it. Webb’s presence is both physically and emotionally bullying, eking a shameless and disgusting disgrace. Despite their kinks and corruptions, the clown always gets what he wants, marking Webb as a supreme torturer of cruel and unusual talent.
Frightening, surreal, and sensational, politics have never been so horrific in The Rules of Inflation.