Review: Crisis, What Crisis?

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Beth Whitaker as Joan

Style: Alternate (but not alternate enough!) History
Where: Praise House, Croydon
When: Until 25th May

Rating: 5/5

If you were to sit down and devise a piece of immersive theatre design to exactly coincide with my life and obsessions, you couldn’t do much better than Crisis, What Crisis.

A political drama set around the vote of no confidence in the Callaghan government you are a group of Labour advisors working at a secret location to solve the labour (and Labour) disputes that are bedevilling the government and putting your wafer-thin majority (just the vote of the speaker in it) in danger of collapse.

Ably led by David (writer Tom Black) and Joan (Beth Whitaker) you negotiate with union leaders, communicate with a worried nation through the medium of phone-ins and a far too curious journalist.

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Tom Black as David

That this piqued and held my interest might have been inevitable. That the rest of the crowd were equally invested and excited was a tribute to the wonderful work of Parabolic director Owen Kingston and writer Black.

The office space was impressively authentic, partly because the building could clearly use a facelift from its 70s heyday, but also because the team have clearly trained the eye for detail they used to such great effect on For King and Country on this late 70s period piece. Having a Welsh Barman called Reg was the piece de resistance- I swear I used to get my Friday night Coca Cola from a similar character every time I was dragged to Hackney Labour Club.

That this spoke so much to me should not put off any less-political immersive lovers. The joy is the journey and the tension here is just as well managed as it was in For King and Country. I promise you don’t need to be a political geek to get this – just willing as always to throw yourself into the action. There’s plenty to land on.

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Review: The Swell Mob

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Photo credit: Rod Penn

Style: The Dark Side of Vaudville
Where: Colab Factory
When: Until end July.

Rating: 3.5/5

Flabberghast Theatre have created a stunning world for The Swell Mob. The world of an 1840 den of iniquity, it is dark and colourful, bejewelled and cheap, murky and fascinating.

From the entry to the upstairs space to the many times I discovered new hidden spaces I hadn’t quite noticed before, exploring The Swell Mob was a marvellous part of the action. But it was not the only part. There was gambling, bare-knuckle fighting and secret missions aplenty to be carried out. There were fascinating characters and even an evil puppet.

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Photo Credit: Rod Penn

What there isn’t is enough time to really appreciate it. Immersive theatre has a rhythm and when you build a world as sumptuous as this, that rhythm is slow. It is about exploring, about drinking the whole thing in. About soaking it in as much with your senses as with your mind.

Here we didn’t really get the chance to do that. There was genuine surprise from everyone when it ended. Many had not completed the missions they were working on (us included) and this was compounded when we were moved out of the bar space quite quickly to allow the next group in. All of which is quite an immersive no-no in my experience.

The Swell Mob started life on the Edinburgh fringe and as such that probably explains the length. fringe shows aren’t very long and so this would not have seemed unusual there. But here – and especially at Colab that currently hosts The Great Gatsby and has previously hosted For King and Country this was unusual, unexpected and a little unwelcome.

There’s so much in this production I want to go back and explore. But for me, I would rather pay more for a longer show. If they could get the economics of doing one – much longer – show a night right, then they could and I am confident would, have a 5 star hit on their hands. As someone keen for more, I really hope they do.

 

The Importance of Being Rehearsed

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I was recently lucky enough to attend an open rehearsal for Say It Again, Sorry Company’s new production. It’s a sort of meta take on Wilde called The Importance of Being…Earnest?, where the audience not only get to see the behind the scenes drama – every bit as hilarious and farcical as the play itself – but also, through a range of devices, take part.

It would be hard to spoil a more than century-old play, so for the sake of this article, I am going to assume a certain amount of knowledge of the play and its conceit. However, where I want to tread carefully is in spoiling anything about the modern added elements. Not least because the joy of seeing something in rehearsal phase is that it may never come to look the way I saw it as the experimentation continues.

As an aside, I once played Lady Bracknell, back in the days when I wanted to be an actress (I mean I still *want* to, but then I was actively training). The absolute hardest thing, I found, was to say the line “A handbag” and not just do a dodgy Edith Evans impression. I managed it, but this sort of block may well be why Hollywood never came a-calling.

Anyway, as a result of both my history with the play, my old love for acting and my newer love for theatre criticism and all things immersive/interactive I really enjoyed sitting in this rehearsal that felt at once familiar and new.

Some elements of the play remain gloriously unchanged. The two young women still simper malevolently at each other just as the ridiculous young men compete to be the biggest arse. I would happily watch a regular production of Ernest as it’s a play I adore. And one with interesting things to say about our modern conversations about identity that may not have been so well understood by the Victorians.

It is the added element of the backstage riotousness that is new and definitely adds to the farce. The comedy is broad, but that doesn’t mean the play will lose its original sharpness.

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The time of the actors was divided between rehearsing the funniest possible way to deliver the lines as Oscar Wilde had written them and adding in all the elements that will make this production so different. So while I recognised the process of repeating a scene again and again seeking its essence, when you know you’re bringing the audience in, you have to then rehearse for unpredictability.

This is a part of what fascinates me about the creation of interactive work. The ability to prepare for anything that might be thrown at you and how that’s done.

Once again, the key is permission. In this rehearsal a great deal of the discussion was taken up with different ways of ensuring that the audience were comfortable and gave their permission without losing the sense of narrative. Everything from formal contracts to implicit hand extensions were discussed for different scenarios and the phrasing of backstage questions were as rehearsed as the dialogue the whole audience will hear from the stage.

Equally, and just as importantly, there was a discussion about what to do with an audience member who wasn’t working out. Theatre has to work for everyone, and if there’s an audience member who is endlessly pulling focus or drunk, or just downright inappropriate, they need to be moved on swiftly for everyone else’s sake. Usually, however, without making them feel bad in the process. So discussion of how to do that is vital to get right.

 

It was so interesting to get a glimpse behind the immersive curtain and see how these discussions play out during the process. I also get the sense that this production is going to be a pure joy to see. I’m really interested to see how farce and interactive theatre will work together and based on the few scenes I saw play out, I get the feeling this show will be a blast.

Check the Say It Again, Sorry website for performance details.

Review: Atomic 50: Time Travels in Tin

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Style: children’s hands-on experience
Where: Leyton Sports Ground
When: Until 30th April

Rating: 5/5 for kids 4/5 for adults

First of all, I should declare that I am a ‘Legend of the Forest’. This means that at various events throughout the year that Waltham Forest is the London Borough of Culture, I rock up in bright pink gear and help out. When I heard there was going to be an immersive experience as part of the festivities I was delighted, Then I found out it was for parents and children only (no adults allowed without an accompanying child) I was determined to volunteer to find out what Atomic 50 was all about.

What it’s all about is tin. Tin in it’s many forms. Making things with tin, making a case for tin as an environmental alternative to plastic, making children’s imagination run wild when it comes to all things tin.

The making experiences were brilliant as part of this show. I really enjoyed making my Atomic 50 badge. But these were only about half of the show, and the order in which I did the experience meant that we did all the making first and the watching and then drawing second which slightly slowed the experience for me.

However, that was a very minor bugbear. On the whole, what really worked was the delight on the children’s faces as they got to get practical with their hands. The actors were all charming and were adept at improvising and making sure that all the kids had equal experiences, from the very shy to the more forward. They were fun, interactive and jollied proceedings along wonderfully.

Immersive theatre for children is a wonderful idea. Children may be shy, but they don’t have that embarrassment barrier that stops so many adults from throwing themselves into an experience. The feedback from the kids at the end of each session I volunteered at or attended was glowing. They loved it and that gave the parents permission enough to throw themselves into it too.

Altogether a lovely experience.

Review: Recollection

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Style: Eye-opening Hyperreal drama
Where: Around London Bridge
When: Until 4th May

To Note: Not suitable for those with mobility issues.

Rating: 5/5

Meeting in a pub near Guy’s Hospital, this drama takes you through the London Bridge area, where you will meet Sarah (Rebecca Ward) and Josh (Benedict Hudson). With them you will look into your missing past and theirs.

Lost in a world of conspiracy and intrigue, you will solve puzzles and make decisions. You will have your head spun by the many twists and turns and will be surprised right up to the very last moment. You will also be faced with things you don’t really look into about yourself that you didn’t know was publically available.

This was a gripping drama. So much so that when it ended I was shocked that much time had passed. The cast is formidable – they move the action on superbly as well as allowing participants to work out their challenges. The world is fully immersive – which is impressive given how vast the world is. At one point we were even looking at a cat suspiciously – we were that lost in the drama.

Recollection can’t have been an easy or a cheap production to stage. Which makes the very reasonable ticket price (£30) and small groups all the more impressive. Director Sophie Larsmon and writer Richard Pucci have created a world that works for this piece but could also be an expanded and ongoing universe. One I would definitely be interested in losing myself in again.

Review: Dinner is Coming

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Jimmy Bannister (Jake Hassam) and Kirsty Bannister (Janina Smith) address the crowd

Style: Sumptuous Parody with Food
Where: The Vaults
When: Until 2nd June

Rating: 5/5

Immersive Dinner theatre can be hit and miss. Sometimes great fun, sometimes a disaster. Regular readers will remember I had considerable issues with the staging, content and overall design of a previous Vaults production Divine Proportions.

So it was with a little trepidation that I approached Dinner is Coming. I worried that there would not be enough immersive elements surrounding the food and drink to make it a worthy night out. I needn’t have.

From your arrival in the throne room, the production keeps you busy engaged and guessing. And you get to sit on the Ironish Throne.

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The action is constant. Shanine Salmon and myself were lucky enough to be recruited as ‘tits’ for Varicose (Liam Flemming) and had whole extra tasks to complete which made us happy as lambs.

Like most dinner theatre this balanced discussion with your table with the action surrounding you, but here I never felt I missed central parts of the action and there was a lot of one on one interaction with the characters that help you move on your storyline as well as getting a really in-depth sense of the action.

There were played out scenes too between every course of the excellent food. Largely dependent on where the audience had got to in their mission of electing the next ruler of Easteros and finding out who killed Jafferey.

The hardest part of the show, for me, was keeping track of the parody names. Remembering to call him Jimmy, her Kirsty, Her Carly. In the end, I quite often simply refered to them in my head and otherwise as “not Jamie” etc. But that was all part of the tongue in cheek fun. Some of the parody elements were a little tortured, but only in that fantastically campy British way that makes this kind of thing so much fun.

There’s so much to do, see and experience in this sumptuous production that I cannot recommend it highly enough. I had a hoot from arrival to leaving. The food was good, the show better. Dinner Is Coming is an absolute blast.

Review: Dismantle this Room

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Style: Woke Escape the Room
Where: Royal Court Theate
When: Until 27th April

Rating: 3.5/5

Dismantle This Room is – in essence – an escape room. You solve puzzles and make decisions as you go through to get through a series of rooms built onto the stage at the Royal Court. However, there is a strong element of self-examination and social justice woven into the experience throughout that give this an added edge.

For example, ticket prices are not set based on where you sit in the theatre but where you perceive yourself on the privilege spectrum. I’m a white, middle class, well-educated city dweller but also a woman. How do I rate? I put myself high but not at the top. It is for others to choose for themselves and perhaps to judge me.

The storyline of the escape room is a little campy (and nothing wrong with that) but the edgy video and the interesting mindful thought experiment at the end add a frisson to the experience that did have us questioning the privilege of the theatre world and who gets to take part in its upper echelons.

The game itself was relatively straightforward despite the fact that my group between us managed to a. accidentally disable the computer and b. get so lost at one point we had to be radioed the message “there’s a pen in the safe”. #usepens folks. It was a little short overall but definitely showed the imagination that is required both for inventors of immersive experiences and those seeking to question the establishment from the heart of the Royal Court.

Overall this was an interesting, thoughtful experience. I’d like to see it further developed into its full potential, but it is definitely worth seeing now.