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Phobiarama review at West Handyside Canopy, King’s Cross, London – ‘strikingly unusual performance piece’

Phobiarama at West Handyside Canopy, King’s Cross, London. Photo: Willem Popelier Phobiarama at West Handyside Canopy, King’s Cross, London. Photo: Willem Popelier

Part-ghost train, part-art installation, Phobiarama is a strikingly unusual performance piece which sees its audience trundling around a sterile white environment in repurposed dodgems, being occasionally menaced by bears.

Conceived by Dutch theatre artist Dries Verhoeven – who returns to London’s LIFT festival after 2010’s intimate, interactive Life Streaming – the show feels at times unavoidably gimmicky, the admittedly promising material stretched too thin.

Despite Verhoeven’s fascination with digital media, and its inextricable connection to the mindset of transfixing dread he invokes here, its impact is never meaningfully addressed. Instead, grainy monitors show black and white CCTV footage, intercut with luridly coloured, utterly abstract video art designed by Casper Wortmann.

Nevertheless, the performance creates a pervasive, unsettling atmosphere, introducing each new element with precision. The ride begins slowly, and in total darkness. Gradually, a large ensemble invade the space, at first barely glimpsed in the flickering lights, but soon looming closer, dressed in shabby costumes, all mangy fur and lolling mouths.

Later, those costumes are stripped away, revealing the muscular, tattooed actors beneath, foregrounding the assumptions and prejudices which would perceive their bodies as innately threatening.

S. M. Snider’s sound design is omnipresent and oppressive, a migraine-throb of droning electronic ambience underscoring the ranting of right-wing demagogues and Islamic State fanatics bellowing from industrial loudspeakers mounted overhead.

Soon enough, their rhetoric dissolves into the empty noise it is, while the score becomes ever-more complicated as our cars rattle around the track at exhilarating, ever-increasing speed.

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Unclassifiable theatrical fairground ride intelligently investigates our contemporary climate of fear