Edinburgh Festival: Choose Your Own Documentary (4 stars)

If, like 64 per cent of us in today’s audience, you remember Edward Packard’s Choose Your Own Adventure children’s books, you will absolutely love Nathan Penlington’s interactive show inspired by them.

And if you’ve never heard of them, you’ll probably be going out to buy a few afterwards.

This is how the story starts: Penlington, on eBay purchasing a hundred of the things. With titles such as Terror Island, Mutiny in Space and Prisoner of the Ant People, (all of which I’ve read) they turn the reader into the hapless protagonist, making choices that inform what happens next in the story.

Penlington’s show follows a similar format. He is on his own adventure: to find the person who previously owned the books, Terrence Prendergast, and left a heartfelt diary inside, detailing childhood bullying and alienation. Where is Prendergast now? Why does he mention a gun? Who is Ellie?

We vote using electronic devices for what we think Penlington should do next on his search (no need to point them at the screen, he says, it’s not the 1980s). Segments of footage, filmed by a documentary crew, then show the result. “If you don’t choose wisely, the show could end suddenly and badly,” Penlington warns – just like the books.

To reveal pretty much anything about what we voted for would spoil things. But what emerges is a story not just of Prendergast struggling to overcome his childhood demons, but of Penlington doing the same. Our amiable host gets increasingly flustered at any kind of confrontation and has done since a child. Turning up on a stranger’s doorstep is not something that comes naturally to him.

This is a piece full of nostalgia for the 1980s but it’s also about moving on from the past. And, in our case, it’s a love story – but you may not get to that bit. By the end, there are still tantalising mysteries surrounding Prendergast’s story. What did he mean about the gun? Did he really run away to Scotland? Maybe you’ll get to find out, but we had a different story – one no less satisfying because the ending wasn’t the one we were expecting.

Written for The Scotsman


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