England Expects

Style: Online game-style prequel
Where: Zoom

Rating: 5/5 stars

As regular readers of this blog will know, Parabolic Theatre can rarely go wrong for me. I adored For King and Country (both iterations) and have loved so many other experiences they have presented me with.

But I’ll admit I was nervous the first time I did England Expects. So much of the new online experiences can feel rushed and slightly slapdash – born more of the boredom of players in lockdown than the precision that governs the best immersive storytelling.

I will also admit that this was my second time playing England Expects. The first time I was a bit knackered and a bit grumpy. That I enjoyed myself enough to book to go back when I was feeling livelier speaks for itself.

This is a prequel to For King and Country and there are occasional nods to that show in it. But those are Easter Eggs for us die hards. If you haven’t seen the originals it won’t make the slightest bit of difference to your enjoyment of this one. The cast may have a few familiar faces, but the characters are quite different.

Depending on which boat (ship? I know there’s a difference and I know sailors get upset by landlubbers like me not knowing the difference) you sign on to, you will be sent on a series of missions. Sometimes as part of your whole crew and sometimes as a side mission with just a select few of you. No matter what role you take, you will have an interesting task throughout.

Your job is to undertake these missions to ensure the best protection of British vessels, British naval interests and British intelligence. There will be decisions made throughout that will affect your ultimate fate and all of you will play a part in these.

This show uses Zoom, but it uses a lot of other tech besides. Read the pre-instructions to ensure as smooth an experience as possible. But it is worth saying it uses Zoom very well. The breakout rooms and the crashing from room to room is woven into the atmosphere and made best use of.

The joy of the show is you’re never bored. There is always something coming at you. A decision to be made, a puzzle to solve or a fight to be lived through – and hopefully won. All the thinking that goes into the real life experience of immersive has been used here to ensure that even sitting alone in my living room on a saturday night swigging Cava, I didn’t feel like a sad sack – I felt like a Captain, a member of the resistance, a liberator.

There’s something about the way Parabolic invoke the spirit of the second world war that works so well for me. It’s the emotional opposite of the way Farage and co do. Parabolic never let you forget – even as you’re having a great time – that war is hell and that it involves really tough decisions. This isn’t nostalgia for an era that never existed. It’s history as a living, breathing experience. Even if – for now – we aren’t living and breathing in each other’s spaces.

This show took me out of my funk for the night. At the moment, that’s a hard ask. That it was done with typical Parabolic wit, panache and energy was perhaps to be Expected of England Expects. But, like victory, it can never be taken for granted.

England Expects can be booked here.

Alice, A virtual Theme Park

Leda Douglas as Alice

Style: Child friendly fun
Where: Zoom

Rating: 4/5 stars

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has to be one of the most replicated and flexible pieces of art around. In my years of watching immersive theatre, I’ve seen it done in so many different styles and for so many different audiences. From the sexy Then She Fell to the bawdy Alice Underground.

This Alice takes the work back to its roots as a children’s entertainment.

Just as you would in a real theme park, here you choose a route through the various amusements. As you click on different links these cleverly take you into Zoom rooms where you meet the familiar cast of Wonderland. each then performs a short skit to you or plays a game with you. There’s a degree of audience participation (especially with the Queen of Hearts – an excellently cross Vera Chok) set at a level that the kids in the audience can both join in and enjoy.

Vera Chok as the Red Queen

Watching the other faces on screen, the kids clearly were having fun. Pitched somewhat at panto level, this show had a requisite amount of scatalogical humour and a baddie that was genuinely chilling as she threw you out of her Zoom. Clever tricks too with props and mirrors made the show a fun experience. However, unlike the best written panto, this didn’t have much of the kind of humour that works on both levels, so it was definitely more for the kids than the adults.

However, clocking in at just over an hour, I think this would make a pretty fine pre-bedtime activity (I might push the start time a little earlier to stop parents being faced with hyped-up kids just before bed). It was fun and lighthearted and full of the baffling charm of the original.

Theatre on Zoom can be unstatisfying at times. Children’s theatre on Zoom as a childless adult more so. But fun was definitely had – by me and by the target audience.

Review: The House that Slipped

L-R: Kas Darly (Julia), Sarah Finegan (Sandra), Michael Wagg (Kev) and Tasha Magigi (Yasmin)

Style: Virtual Futuristic drama
Where: Zoom

Rating: 3/5 stars

One day, the residents of 12 Labernum Drive find themselves 50 years in the future. One minute it’s April 2020 and lock down has been going about a month. The next thing they know they’re part of an agricultural Brockley unlike any they knew before.

There are really interesting ideas explored in The House that Slipped. The difference between the horror of now and an imagined idyllic future; The interplay of relationships between people forced to share space both under normal London conditions – i.e. houses split into flats and lockdown conditions – family forced to stay with each other under unnatural circumstances; and what it means to make life changing decisions as a group rather than an individual.

In some ways, perhaps there are too many of these questions and themes. The action can feel a little disjointed and the discussions with cast members seemed to end just as they got going. We got told aspects of the future and it was a tempting glimpse (and answers to our pre-show questionnaire were cleverly woven in) but it felt a little incomplete. What might work in a live action immersive – only seeing a portion of the show – feels less satisfying in this format.

There’s a lot to potentially develop in this show. The characters and their relationships to each other are interesting and – more drawn out – could have a lot of depth. I found Sandra (Sarah Finegan) particularly intriguing and Yasmin (Tasha Magigi) the most fun to spend time with, but that may be because the other 2020 characters were less sympathetic.

With the characters from 2070, these were less fleshed out as three dimensional beings and more plot points. They told of of the mistakes to come and made their own mistakes about our history in amusing and interesting ways.

Ultimately, there’s a great deal of potential in The House That Slipped, but it needs to perhaps make a decision about what it wants to do and be. Is it a futuristic parable? A relationship drama? A virtual escape room? At the moment it has elements of all of this but only scratches the surface of each leaving you with not quite enough of any one element. But if they tighten that up, there’s the potential for a very interesting show there.

Review: Jury Duty

Style: Virtual crime thriller
Where: Zoom

Book here.

Rating: 4/5 stars

In this world turned upside down, emergency legislation has been rushed through to do away with barristers. Now the accused in court have only you – the intrepid members of the jury to determine their guilt or innocence. Good luck!

Staring Tom Black (previously seen in Crisis, What Crisis? and Crooks 1926) as Harry Briggs, an investigative journalist possibly turned arsonist, this online adventure lets the audience decide the fate of the accused. You are guided throughout by a faceless convenor (Joe Ball) who manages your experience whisking you from Zoom room to Zoom room to talk with your fellow jurors and the accused.

At first the experience can feel somewhat overwhelming with an enormous initial data dump of documents for you to sift through and decipher for clues. However, if you work well with the other jurors you soon get a handle on the information and as the experience goes on your are able – through emails and phone calls to piece together a reasonable picture of the events?

Or are you? This is a complex story that keeps you engaged right up to the end. We were lucky in that we did correctly suss out the ending, but I don’t think it would have affected the fun we had on the journey had we got it wrong.

I’ve been missing theatre – and particularly immersive theatre – so much since the lockdown started. And while there’s nothing quite like being there in the flesh, this is a very clever and well-adapted piece that takes full advantage of the technology we are all living on now to deliver a well crafted and engaging story. And while there were a few technical glitches, they didn’t interrupt either our enjoyment of our sleuthing.

Zoom isn’t the same as real life. But this was the best time I’ve had on a Zoom call thus far. It was a glorious relief from the tedium of the medium. It was as well crafted as the best immersive theatre, just clever enough to challenge the audience and just solvable enough to give a satisfying and fun experience.

If you’re bored of box sets and tired of the tedium this is the perfect antidote. My only quibble is that once you’ve done it once, the experience isn’t very replicable. So I won’t be able to do it again and again, much as I would wish to.

Review: Jekyll/Hyde

Credit: Sophia Romualdo

Style: Victorian puzzle solver
Where: Various locations around Waterloo starting at the Vaults.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Not suitable for those with mobility issues.

What did you do last night? We’ll we’ve all had those mornings. Where we piece together the debauchery that took place the night before as we crawl into our cornflakes with shame. That’s the basic premise of Jekyll/Hyde.

Much like it’s predecessor show 80 Days, A Real World Adventure this is as much an interactive game as it is an immersive experience. Similarly, you run around an area of London with a map and your phone answering clues and making choices about how you want to proceed as you discover more and more about your dastardly deeds from the night before under the influence of mad scientist Frey (a delightfully impish Daniel Chrisostomou).

Along the way you are also helped by the coldly experimental Goldmann (Chloe Mashiter) who makes you feel under a microscope just by looking at you and a sweet and well-meaning lawyer Edmonton (Tim Kennington).

Daniel Chrisostomou as Frey. Credit Sofia Romualdo.

My key tip would be to dress warmly. Most of the clues are outside and while you will be racing around a lot, you definitely need layers to make sure you’re in any fit state to answer them.

The clues themselves are challenging enough to be interesting and hard to solve while also being solvable enough not to lead to severe frustrations. Just like 80 days, they offer a chance to get a unique perspective on a place you’ve probably been a million times. I definitely learned much while enjoying myself hugely.

For me, the ending wasn’t quite as sharp as previous Fire Hazard shows and as such the experience slightly petered out. I also wonder again how repeatable the experience is – as once you know the answers it would be hard to have the same level of experience. That may come to be a crimp in the business model of Fire Hazard. Lots of immersive works by having people come back to visit the world time and time again, and while I would love to replicate the night out we enjoyed, I don’t know that this is possible.

Tim Kennington. Credit Sofia Romualdo

But having said that, this was a cracking night out. That’s why I would want to replicate it. The atmosphere created by the superb cast as well as the challenge of the game was enormous fun and the time flew by. I could have gone on for hours more.

Jekyll/Hyde works best when done by a pair or in a small group. It’s an enormous laugh and one best shared with a friend. It’s running throughout the Vaults festival and if you get the chance I highly recommend it. Go along, learn about Waterloo and it’s surrounding areas, laugh your (thick woolly) socks off and decide exactly what kind of punishment you deserve for being the animal brought out by Frey’s elixir.

Review: Crooks 1926

L-R: Holli Dillon, Angus Woodward, Simon Pothecary. Credit: Michael Kaltenborn.

Style: 1920s caper
Where: King William IV, 16 Harper Road, London SE1 6AD

Rating: 5/5 stars

Colab have done it again. Once again, they offer an immersive experience so gripping, so engaging and so thrilling that the audience could have done it twice over and not noticed the time go.

It’s 1926 and the General Strike is on. Various unions are threatened over a debt owed to a cruel and vicious landlord. But revolution is in the air, and so the workers come together to formulate a daring plan. The heist is on.

This caper has pretty much everything you can imagine. There are several daring raids (pulled off only if the audience gets it right), rigged racing, a fight, a wedding, negotiation, speeches, villains, heroes and a stonking bar. there is not a moment during which you aren’t busy. There is not a moment during which you aren’t engaged. There is not a moment where you aren’t challenged. There are puzzles to solve in three separate areas and you get a chance to take part in all of them as the night progresses.

Tom Black. Credit: Michael Kaltenborn.

Everything is pitched just right. This is the hallmark of Colab productions. The level of detail and thought put into every aspect of their shows makes them just a different level of immersive. From the set design and props to the detailed thought that goes into every aspect of the audience’s experience they always deliver in spades and Crooks 1926 is no exception. The storyline never gets in the way of the challenges, the challenges never get in the way of the story. It is managed as if an “on rails” experience, yet it is audience-driven and feels wholly organic.

Crooks 1926 kept me gripped throughout. In some ways, I almost missed the moments I’ve had in other shows to quietly take myself out of the action and explore the set, but there was just far too many interesting and fun things to do. Not least, dance at my wedding (yes, of course I was the bride!)

The cast are superb. They managed the audiences – leading us when we needed it, sitting back and letting us lead them when the time was right to do so. When moving the storyline on they made it feel completely natural that they were doing so. Their responsiveness to audience decisions was razor-sharp and their ability to herd us from A-B without is ever feeling them do so is uncanny.

Crooks 1926 is a fantastic night out. And at £28 for a two and half hour show it’s an absolute steal (and it’s great to see immersive produced at an accessible price range). If you have ever been tempted to try immersive theatre but haven’t yet, this is an incredibly accessible production. If – like me – you’re an old hand, this has everything you’re looking for.

I cannot recommend this belter of a show highly enough. Go see it. Do it now.

Review: Red Palace

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Teddy Lamb as Wolf. Photo by Nic Kane.

Style: Burlesque Fairy Tale
Where: The Vaults

Rating: 4/5 stars

Brought to the Vaults by the same people who brought us Divine Proportions I was a little nervous about Red Palace. However, despite having a few issues hearing the actors over the dining portion of the event, the company had clearly taken some of the issues on board. This even had a little interaction over the dinner – but as this was optional, there was plenty of action during the main show which took place after dinner. It was well lit, well amplified and more importantly well-staged, directed and written.

The story was quite simple and classic. Macbeth as delivered through classic Fairy Tale characters. It had elements throughout of intrigue, audience participation, cabaret and puzzle solving – all my favourite parts of immersive theatre. The action zips along nicely and the different scenes are well played. The space is complicated and the queuing between scenes was sometimes a little awkward. It also meant that sometimes the noise from one scene bled into the action of another which could be distracting.

My other question is on the burlesque element, which I am not convinced brought a lot to the show. I am never quite sure how I feel about burlesque. Is it simply a way of dressing up stripping as something more modern or is it empowering and sexy? And if it is, why aren’t men doing it? The dancers here were definitely powerful and danced brilliantly, so if burlesque is your thing then I am sure this added element would definitely enhance your experience.

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Nic Kane Photography

What worked especially well was the layered experience of each room adding elements to the story. As the audience all saw these elements in different orders, it was well written that these never seemed confused or out of order. Someone who – for example – went into the forest at their first shot may have a very different understanding throughout than those of us who started at the gingerbread bar, but the different experiences enhanced rather than hindered the overall show.

This is a really fun experience. The food is an optional extra but it is genuinely delicious and definitely worth it. The performances were all superb with enough wit in their improvisation to show that the actors had done in-depth character thinking and understood what would normally be considered archetypes. For me the standout was Emily Essery as Red, but overall the quality was high and the thought that had gone into the show was obvious.

Review: Souvenir

Emma cast and guests 2.JPGStyle: Hyper-real, deeply intimate drama
Where: Various

Rating: 5/5 stars

Surprise parties are the worst aren’t they? They’re always either not a surprise or not particularly welcome. I’m such an event planner, no one will ever be able to throw me a surprise party as I plan literally every big event months in advance. So luckily this will never happen to me.

However, at Souvenir, I found myself attending a surprise 30th birthday party. Held by Richard (Damian Gildea) for his partner Anna (Sonya Cullingford) ably assisted by her best friend Margot (Bonnie Adair). It is fair to say, that by the end of the drama, Anna is not the only one in for a surprise.

Brought to you by the same people who made the superb Recollection this is a drama that plays again with our understanding of memories, how they make us who we are and how as we continue to curate them online, we may change how they behave offline.

This is a powerful and intense drama made even more so for the daring gambit of the fact that each performance is created in a punter’s home (reveal: on this occasion it was mine). You go to a real house, stand by their real stove and that makes the moving story of the party that becomes so much more, so much more real to you.

It’s an astonishing experience. One made more intimate by the detritus of a real person’s flat. Of watching the action take place while standing next to the stove. by watching things fall apart, knowing that that space has probably seen its own share of domestics, tears, recriminations.

This is a great experience and a moving piece of work that is daringly staged. I highly recommend going to a performance near you. And if there isn’t one – host one!

Preview: Bridge Command

fe1752e4-3eab-409e-9353-81c60b528862One of the nicest things about writing this blog is how much I have got to know some of the immersive theatre community. In particular, I have become an ardent admirer and fan of the work that comes out of Colab Factory.

In part, this is because the central cast and crew are just so bloody nice. In part, it’s because their shows are so well put together and thoughtful. But mostly, it’s because they combine these two factors into the centrally important, overriding element that makes immersive theatre work: they put the audience’s experience at the heart of what they do.

Writing a review without spoilers is tough enough. Writing a preview even harder. But I will do my best.

Last week I was privileged to spend an afternoon with the team as they blocked out, rehearsed and tested their latest adventure Bridge Command. Part computer game, part immersive spaceship simulation, this short family-oriented show gives the small (6 person) audience/crew the change to learn a set of computer-based roles and systems and make game-changing decisions.

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The rehearsal process was fascinating as the actors both had to facilitate the action enough to ensure they were learning new things each time they ran through the scene but also remember that they were testing how usable the technology was for an audience facing it for the first time.

One thing that hadn’t occurred to me was that they have to rehearse for different types of audience. In this case from kids hyped up on sugar to drunken stag dos. Watching them do so was both revealing and fascinating and has made me vow to make sure my gin money is spent mostly after the performances from now on!

In the show, all the tropes of space travel fun are engaged. The technology is challenging at first – part of the testing is ironing that out – but when you get to grips with it, there is much fun to be had. Each member of the crew faces different challenges as per their assigned role and overall, each will contribute to the joint success or failure of the venture.

I saw Bridge Command while still in rehearsal so am aware only of its potential (and let’s face it, as a Colab project it has a lot of potential) but can absolutely see not only how enjoyable it will be as a family experience, but how much I hope I will get to take along my computer-loving nephew one day.