Forest Sounds: A Party After the End of the World

Photograph credited to Alfie Heffer

Leaving the motorway after a very warm two hour drive up from Coventry, I was instantly reminded of two things. One, this city has some serious hills, and two, damn! Look at all of that green! I’ve lived in cities the world over, and I don’t think there are any that evoke the same sense of adventure and freedom in me. Oh, how I’ve missed this place.

It’s been nearly two years since I last visited Sheffield, so when I arrived at Theatre Deli’s new space, I was completely turned around. A few years back, the theatre was located in the old Woolies on the Moor, in a space that you could describe as being held together with gaffer tape and good will.

Their new space couldn’t feel more different. With its raging pink sign, fully functional bar, beautiful foyer area and professionally kit-out theatre, this new space marks their territory as an indispensable part of Sheffield’s cultural scene. I often use Theatre Deli’s model as an example of how we should be repurposing empty spaces to give artists and theatre makers the opportunity to develop – how this can start as something small but slowly build into a more significant presence – so it’s great to come back and see them really thriving.

Photograph credited to Alfie Heffer

Now my reason for the weekend’s Northern jaunt (along with a quick trip to the peaks and some long overdue catch-ups) was to catch A Party After the End of the World, a newly devised piece by Forest Sounds Theatre. When making notes to write this review, I was immediately struck with how difficult it would be. This is definitely one of those theatre experiences where I want to tell you all of the tiny little details, the emotions I felt, the sounds, the smell, the touch… but to do so would be to rob you of the full experience. So I’ll do my best not give the game away, but inevitably there are a few spoilers dotted in here.

I had no idea what to expect from this performance. Having seen The Church of Jim back in 2016, I knew that Forest Sounds have a taste for the bizarre and the somewhat unsettling. However, what I didn’t expect is quite how much this piece would focus on the participation, or perhaps the non-participation of the audience. We were lead into the party by Lucy, whose character perfectly personifies the overzealous hostess: “Here’s your party hat. No! Don’t put it on – not yet.” A combination of tarpaulin, balloons and tinsel, complete with snacks, games and an itinerary, the set sits somewhere between a warehouse rave and a children’s tea party.

Andy awkwardly announces himself as party host, giving a run down of what to expect for the evening’s activity, and then we’re left to explore. Packed in tightly around tables, there’s a wild look in every eye that I encounter. This is outside so many of our social comfort zones. We didn’t expect to have to make decisions for ourselves at this point – what do we do?

It’s not long before we’re up exploring the various different areas of the space, set up somewhat like a festival but yet satirising the various different ‘natural’ zones that happen at a party. An area for solitude and contemplation; a space for relaxation; an area for chatting complete with jigsaws; a darker area for dancing. It’s everything you expect a party to be, and yet I’m just not sure any of us were expecting it.

Photograph credited to Alfie Heffer

As our hosts bumble through various party rituals, I couldn’t help but think that I had missed something. Where was this ‘end of the world’ narrative that the title of the show alludes to? It’s a fleeting thought before the pace of the activity changes. After what feels like an eternity of awkwardly eyeing each each other in a closely confined and well-lit space, our hosts now request that we join them “to do the dancing”. We move into the ‘dance area’. There’s a lot of us and the space is small – we bustle, nervously chatting and rubbing shoulders. Will someone please tell us what we’re supposed to be doing? As we’re guided through the next series of activities, it’s not until my hand makes contact with that of a stranger’s and we smile at each other, both fearful and accepting of this strange social pact that we’ve formed, that it dawns on me – the world has already ended.

I found myself in a room full of almost strangers, giddy with the possibility of positive human interaction, and a new understanding that this work so subtlely and cleverly has highlighted our separateness and brought us all together. The final activity of the evening, a shared task, is so simple, but it triumphantly unites us all.

I left feeling… bewildered. Something good just happened, my insides – my heart – feels good, but I’m not entirely sure I understand why. And perhaps even better than the experience was the debate that my friend and I had as we traipsed across the city to our favourite social centre (Shakespeares Pub), we talked about parties, about anxiety – about the human condition. We discussed ways the piece really worked. Lucy and Andy’s roles were so perfectly awkward, yet there was an honesty in their roles; this was their party and they really wanted us to enjoy it. We also talked about ways the show could be developed. What would happen if you took alcohol out of the scenario? Would you feel different if you could only get one ticket and you didn’t have the moral support of a friendly face?

I return back to my little world down in middle England, where on most days I find myself worrying about how my actions are being perceived by those around me, confident in the knowledge that the world has already ended and that rebuilding starts with a smile, an open hand, and – hopefully – one serious party.

Photograph credited to Alfie Heffer