19/08/14 Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh
I kind of know Nathan Penlington – or, at least, there’s a tenuous connection. We come from the same home town. My brother was friends with his brother for a while, and – when I started my very first teaching job in North Wales – Nathan was in the sixth form. I didn’t teach him, but he wasn’t a kid you could fail to notice: long hair, a penchant for tartan, and a regular performer of magic tricks and poetry. I still have a CD of his poems somewhere, sold at the end of a school event. So, when we saw Choose Your Own Documentary advertised, I was interested to see what he’d ended up doing. And ‘making rather good documentaries’ seems to be at least part of the answer, alongside ‘writing books’ and ‘reflecting on the past.’
Choose Your Own Documentary is an innovative blend of film and spoken word, with a twist of audience participation. Nathan, it transpires, is a long-time fan of Choose Your Own Adventure books, and the documentary tells us of the bulk purchase he made of second-hand copies. Inside the books were the twenty-year old private scribblings of a troubled young boy, whose fragments of diary haunted Penlington, and pre-empted the film: he decided to track down the boy and see what sort of man he had become. For many film-makers, that would be enough.
But Penlington is trickier than that: he doesn’t reveal the whole story. We, the audience, have to decide which parts we want to see. We are given little remote controls, and we have to vote for what comes next. We are inside the frustrating world of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, knowing that there are other – maybe better – permutations. If we want to see those, we have to attend the show again (I think I would, if it weren’t at the Fringe, and there weren’t so many other things I want to catch). It’s clever, it’s original, and it’s also strangely moving. Luckily, there’s a book (The Boy in the Book by Nathan Penlington, published by Headline), which contains the whole story. So we buy that, and leave content.