Review: Manor of Lies

Style: An adventure in your mind
Where: Zoom
Length: Approx 2 hours

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Manor of Lies is a romp. It is fast paced, fun and sometimes silly.

You and a group of strangers have to team up to solve a murder before it is pinned on you. You meet the residents of Darcy Manor as you meet up with your old friend the roguish Lord Dante Rochester. The twist is you can’t see anything. As soon as you meet your team, you are blindfolded and stay that way throughout the mystery.

I wasn’t too sure how that was going to work. I have been blindfolded in real life immersive, but on Zoom it seemed a bit odd. And at times it was. It took a while to stop believing people were just taking stupid screenshots of me. And it’s quite hard finding your can of coke while blindfolded!

However, the gameplay was fun and engaging and it was an excellent team building exercise with each of us naturally taking on certain roles as our investigation into blackmail morphed into an investigation into murder.

The characters were about as well fleshed out as you could hope for in a murder mystery. All played by Ben Felton and Emma Bostock (easier to do when it’s auditory only) there was a decent range and depth as well as a back story that was guessable (we got there) but challenging (we only just got there). And enough clues and sidelines along the way to keep my interest throughout.

I started the evening absolutely exhausted and was a little concerned as to how I would do with being blindfolded for two hours. As it turned out my interest was held throughout and the excitement of chasing down the culprit was enough to invigorate me.

This is a fun way to spend the evening. While the premise may sound like immersive on the cheap (and tbf it probably is) the product is well thought through, engaging, entertaining and bloody good fun.

House of Cenci

Style: Text-based adventure meets multi-generation crime thriller
Where: Zoom
Length: 180 (in three sessions) plus however long your gameplay takes

Rating: 5/5 stars

When I think about House of Cenci, I am a bit worried that previously I have been too generous in my star ratings. Maybe I enjoy myself too much doing immersive to be a proper critic to it. Because if I had the chance I would give House of Cenci 6/5 stars.

For the BBC Basic/C64 generation, nothing was so thrilling in our childhood as phrases like “you are in a clearing, there is an exit to the East and the West”. The early days of home computing (so early that for me it was a long time before this happened at home, but our primary school had a BBC Basic we were allowed to play on occasionally) were all about the text-based adventure game. Lords of Time was a particular favourite and my family still say “Victory goes to the free” to each other (quoting Lords of Midnight) when we win something.

House of Cenci combines online immersive theatre with this kind of gaming. And it does so seamlessly and charmingly. In the pandemic, for many of us who have felt alone and often bored, with no theatre or friends to see, this show has given literally hours of entertainment.

Set across three times (1599, 1971 and 2021) you watch parallel stories of the Cenci family – their cruel patriarch Francesco and the family he tortures – and see how the whole thing unfolds. As you play the game, each episode ends with a password to an hour of live interaction – one in each time – with the Cenci family and their hangers on.

The game draws you in completely. From the spooky music to the often fiendish puzzles. I found myself looking up at the clock and it had been four hours – so immersed was I. That the game is also supplemented with the live interactions means that the characters come so much more to life. When you are wandering into Lucrezia’s bedroom or find Giacomo suite, you can picture them. You can think about what to ask them next time you meet.

The immersive community have adapted well to a difficult year. I have found a lot of the game playing and interaction has helped a great deal with the stress, boredom and loneliness of being stuck on my own most of the time.

But Parabolic being Parabolic they took it to the next level once again. Instead of three hours of a nice, fun evening (though to be fair they’ve given a few of those over the year) they have clearly put a lot of thought into what is needed to make something feel as close as possible to the experience of poking around a set, opening little drawers and solving little puzzles on your own outside of the main action. Having House of Cenci in my life gave me back so much of what I have been missing from immersive theatre.

When life goes back to normal, I don’t think immersive theatre will – not completely. I mean, don’t get me wrong, touch is a really important part of what is missing. Live shows will be back. As a Parabolic regular said to me part of the fun is the gin and tonic afterwards where cast and audience mingle. But I think interesting and important lessons have been learned about how to do this well online. And in doing so, the best experiences have attracted much wider audiences. So – much like House of Cenci itself – immersive will probably return as a hybrid.

And if it maintains the standard of House of Cenci I really, really hope it does. This show genuinely took my breath away on occasions. On others it had me holding my breath hoping I had finally crack the puzzle. Even after spending as much of the latter half of 2021 away from these four bloody walls – I won’t want to lose that.

Emma is staging her first play, No Cure for Love, this Summer and needs your help if you can.

Sherlock Holmes: An online adventure

Sherlock Holmes at Madame Tussauds London – July 2016 PR Handout Copyright: © Mikael Buck / Madame Tussauds

Style: Sherlock Holmes based online immersive game
Where: Zoom
Length: 90 minutes
Booking: www.sherlockimmersive.com

Rating: 5/5 stars

Welcome to The Case of the Hung Parliament. You’re here to assist Sherlock (well mostly Watson actually) in solving the murder of the Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor as well as a threat to the life of the Prime Minister.

Played through a combination of Zoom and websites, a group (there were six of us) work together to discover clues and put together the murderer, their motive and method. There are four acts – the first in which you investigate the victims’ offices (where they were killed), the second in which you work with either Scotland Yard or Forensics to discover further clues, you then interrogate the suspects and finally, work with Holmes in the home straight (sorry!) to piece together the puzzle.

Richard Holt at Sherlock Holmes.

The Watsons are a rolling team, and in our case we were ably guided by Ellen Lilley. Her style was perfect, setting out the rules and watching us go. I never felt too guided but equally never got lost. The rest of the cast don’t appear live – it’s all done through video clips. But there was enough interaction with both Watson and the group to make it feel fully immersive.

Like all such things, I suspect that who you play with matters quite a lot. In my case most of the group was a really lovely family, whose enthusiasm made the thing fly by. It also meant that I got to see people of all ages engaging in the game. It seemed that everyone was getting a lot from it and there has clearly been thought put in to making sure that it worked for such groups.

With games where you have a win/lose ending, I always ask how many people get the ending right. I’m told that this is roughly 60% (of which I am delighted to say we were a part). That seems about right to me. You want a majority satisfied audience without the game play being too easy. It was extremely satisfying to get it right.

Overall, this was a really fun and engaging way to spend an afternoon. The game play was impressive and the technology (largely) held up. Online gaming is not going anywhere even after lockdown, so it’s good to see the work being put in to making it work.

Given that my job is working in political journalism, the one thing I would quibble with is how rotten all the politicians were. It would be nice just once to see a politician who isn’t corrupt portrayed. But that is totally my own hang up and didn’t affect my enjoyment. Also on a very odd personal note, it was quite fun that I’m distantly related to a clue (though I can’t tell you who as it would be a spoiler).

Sherlock Holmes: An Online Adventure was engaging, fun and provided a lot of laughs. Fun for all the family – from those I was playing with today to my ancestors!

THIS IS REALITY 2000

Style: Legally, I suspect I am not allowed to say it’s like being on Big Brother.
Where: Zoom

Rating: 5/5 stars

We didn’t start well. Half of us were either late or had forgotten to follow the (quite simple) instructions in the pre-emails so it took us a while to get going. The Housemaster clearly knew from the start that he had a job on his hands keeping us in line. That they did manage to guide us gracefully and pretty seamlessly through the game is a testament to how well put together This is reality 2000 is.

In This is Reality 2000 groups of between six and twelve people sign up to play a range of characters. From the ‘diva’ Jordan Mann-Hunter (me absolutely not playing to type…!), the ‘Toff” Charlie Forbes or ‘eccentric’ Sasha Fortune. You are given a character sheet in advance with key characteristics and facts to help you get into the role. There is also the option to take a non-participatory role as a viewer.

Me (second row on the right) and the gang

The game is played out over 15 short activities where housemates – i.e. players – are given a series of tasks to do. Each is also given secret objectives to follow through on that are relevant either to their character or their hopes of success in the game. The tasks were nicely varied, including a themed scavenger hunt, a quiz and a drawing task. We were put into teams which then involved a good use of Zoom breakout rooms.

Like much online immersive, this is a long affair at around two and a half hours. But because of the break up into chapters (punctuated by fantastically nostalgic musical breaks) it absolutely zipped by.

This is a game that is so much more fun if you get into character. I wouldn’t recommend it to those who would feel silly or half-hearted in doing so, because you would not only spoil your own enjoyment, but that of your friends too. But if you’re willing to throw yourself into it you can and will have an incredibly fun and enjoyable evening.

We laughed throughout our time playing This is Reality 2000. People who hadn’t known each other before (I was the common link) were getting on like a house on fire by the end. We were transported out of the bleakness of winter and the times and back to the days when everyone knew who Marjory the chicken was and the nastiest thing we could imagine a former reality star doing was writing names on a piece of paper rather than locking children up in cages.

If you need a bit of glorious escapism – and right now, who doesn’t – then (virtually) gather your mates and sign up for This is Reality 2000. Because while this remains the reality of 2021, then having fun like this is essential.

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.