John Robertson: The Dark Room @ Underbelly

Review by Vonny Moyes | 11 Aug 2014

“Find light switch”

“You can’t just find the light switch. You’re in a dark room. You need the light switch to see. Do you see?”

Shouty Australians should not be given microphones. Not because they have nothing to say, but because it’s so loud, you stand a good chance of losing your hearing. In a snappy red two-piece suit, channelling the spirit of a punk rock Brian Blessed, John Robertson will be your time lord for the evening, navigating you through the most infuriating nostalgia trip of your life.  “You awake to find yourself in a dark room!” shouts a floating head with a maniacal smile. You enter the White Belly, and somehow you find yourself in the middle of the most circuitous, oblique and utterly infuriating text-based adventure game. A memory that resonates with the fellow 80s kids in the room, who all too well remember less-than-glorious advent of modern gaming. An advent that brought the future packed in plastic casing directly into our homes. A future that ultimately involved patience, impeccable grammar and unpredictable tech that would often decide to give up.

After some riffing on the failures of our generation, and an intro to the table of prize-winning bounty (a collection of crap John has amassed, including a bag of other people’s flyers, some super-noodles and the ‘Box of Possibly Meat’), the game begins. An unwitting audience member is plucked out by the floating head, renamed, and then gently nudged towards unavoidable death. Repeat with several more punters, it becomes maddening to the point of hilarity; however the participatory bent encourages the insufferable drunken dolts among the crowd to derail the show with their unhelpful suggestions.

Things take a turn for the weird – a bizarre concept in a show where a floating head is attempting to kill you – when a heckler offers Robertson a dance in exchange for safe passage to the next command. This results in a bet, the dancing drunk leading a Pied-Piper-esque mass exodus of the curious, including the wheelchair bound show-goers tearing up the aisle, before some return and another confuses the stage for the bathroom. It’s unscripted mayhem of epic proportions, but Robertson regains control by delivering a line that perfectly surmises the madness.

A democracy round has the whole audience screaming conflicting directions, and once again ultimately results in inevitable death. The game is illogical and erratic almost to the point of aneurysm, but John’s skill with the crowd, commitment to the concept and keen comic asides keep it light and entertaining. It’s not for the faint-hearted or sensitive souls, but it’s a cult hit and an essential Fringe experience. 

John Robertson: The Dark Room @ Underbelly, 1-24 Aug (not 12), 8.40 pm, £9.50