Updated: Jul 23
Review by Sam Waite
Working in hospitality can mean encountering all of the worst kind of people, and working with some of them for good measure – as a former West End usher, do take my word for it. In Louis Rembges’ Chatham House Rules, headed to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the difficult-to-please and easy to despise patrons are also the ultra-elite, and our protagonists fantasies of evening the playing field may have gone to horrific extremes.
Host, the name Rembges’ character has given himself, is talking to an oversized pair of legs – an unsettling and immediately captivating feature in this black-box setting. The story he is acting out, hoping the unresponsive owner of these limbs can hear him, is about a recent event he worked front of house at and the many people he interacted with and observed. Assigning his co-workers and the guests names based on their mannerisms or appearance, he eventually drops the name of this wealthy, well-known man – “Pig F***er”.
Opening with a playlist of TikTok videos projected on the back wall, my immediate worry was that Chatham House Rules would either use the familiarity of popular videos to illicit laughs from the audience, or would be a redundant parody of current technological culture. I'm pleased to admit that I had the show all wrong, and the social media aspect was a welcome and fascinating inclusion. Host had taken a nearly-year-long break from social media prior to being drafted to work at a prestigious tech conference, but in being made to reinstall Instagram to join a group chat he falls back into his former patterns as a meme-sharing social media maverick.
Rembges’ performance, or perhaps performances, is electrifying and essential to the piece's success. Over the hour we spend in his company, we see him slip in and out of the personas of many annoying colleagues and infuriating speakers, in-between extended periods of the captivating character that is Host. Host is dealing with a trauma related to his social media hiatus, and the opportunity to break the titular rules – in which the identities and affiliations of the speakers must remain confidential – turns him into an online anarchist, garnering the attention of old and new followers and the demand that he take action against these members of the elite, particularly Pig F***er.
All of this is stunningly well acted, with Rembges able to convert just how close to a complete breakdown the character is while still constantly moving the story forwards. An equally skilled writer, his plot has enough twists to keep the audience on their toes, and enough opportunities for humour that the increasing darkness is both softened and highlighted. His eventual descent, and the fate of Pig F***er, are so compelling in that their components are there from the very beginning, but the way they come together is completely unexpected.
Mitchell Polonsky is a talented and astute director, allowing Rembges a freedom in his role that helps the more performative and exaggerated moments to feel more authentic and natural. Polonsky brings levels to the work, keeping the manic energy from every pushing too cartoonishly high or low enough to falter – his utilitarian movement choices help to convey the tightness of the space the two characters are noted to be inhabiting, and to put across how small Host’s world has become outside of his online presence.
The reliance on social media and WhatsApp conversations, all displayed behind the actor himself when in use, will admittedly age the piece should it have a lengthy future. However, the work is not intimately tied to the particular apps beyond their mention in the text – these mentions could be easily substituted, as there will always be a website or app dedicated to sharing videos, images, or other kinds of content, which is the go-to for the youth at any given moment.
Exciting and thought-provoking in ways that many social media-centric storytelling fails to achieve, Chatham House Rules is a bold piece of theatre which was clearly well-liked by its vocal, enthusiastic audience at the Omnibus Theatre. Well-performed and much better written than I had initially anticipated (my apologies to Louis Rembges!) this is a timely and eternally relevant commentary on the disparities between social classes, and the addictive qualities of social media, that will stay with you long after Rembges takes his bow.
Chatham House Rules will play at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh from August 2nd to August 28th.
For tickets and information visit https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/chatham-house-rules
Photos by Maite de Orbe