Role-play for grown-ups

There was a role-playing exercise at my work the other day.

My job was to watch what the two players were doing and note down my impressions. It was quite entertaining.

I won’t go into details but they gave pretty good performances – a little stilted at first, but growing in stature and confidence as the simulation progressed. It was like proper amateur dramatics.

When it finished, the “watchers” were asked what they had written down. In my case, I’d drawn a doodle with lots of arrows in it, a vaguely phallic squiggle and a single sentence in amazingly scruffy shorthand: why do people role-play?

It’s a puzzler, but not an uncommon occurrence. I once went through six months of gruelling interviews and assessments for MI6. Again I won’t go into details, from fear of being “erased” by the British State, but there was plenty of role-play. So much so you started to question whether anyone was who they said they were. You forgot whether you were playing a role or being yourself. In fact, you forgot what being yourself even meant.

By the end, when someone called your real name you didn’t flinch: you just spun round on your heels and shot them in the face. I’m joking – it’s always the kneecaps first.

At one point I remember running through Piccadilly Circus in the rain to find a woman who was pretending to be someone else. When I found her in an alleyway, hunched over a briefcase, she didn’t say: “Oh fab, lets get the role-play started.”

She was already in the zone, and really convincing. OK, it was more like a Crimewatch reconstruction than actual life – but a really good Crimewatch, a vintage edition. We talked about ... no, I’ve said enough: somebody’s going to find me and ... no, shut your hole ...

Advocates of role-play champion it as a safe way to explore aspects of yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t countenance. It’s a fantasy world and enticing in its own way. Kids thrive on it, and well they should. But it feels a bit weird as an adult, particularly in an office environment at 11 in the morning.

You feel as if you should get down on the floor with a bowl of Smarties and start braiding each other’s hair; maybe meet up again at lunchtime to make daisy chains and play on the chutes in the park. But don’t dilly-dally, colleagues: last one there’s a hairy kipper.

What you do in the comfort of your own home is a different matter. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve dressed up as a fireman, kicked in my front door, dragged my wife through to the bedroom and whacked my hose onto the bedsheets. “Don’t worry,” I’ll shout as the mattress bursts into flames and the smoke alarm starts bleating: “It’s only role-play.”

When the neighbours start banging on the walls and the real fire brigade screeches to a halt outside, I have to shout again: “Really, don’t worry – we’re having fun!”

When a role-play you’ve been involved in works out you feel grand, but when it doesn’t you can get a nasty beamer. And sadly the world is full of role-play detectives just waiting to trip you up.

You’ll easily spot them. When they don’t like a film they’ll say: “Oh, it didn’t feel real to me, it was as if the actor was playing a role.” Now, I ask you! An actor? In a film? Playing a role? There’s no fooling some folk. They probably work for the secret service.