Review: Spy City

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Adam Lannon and Robert Thompson. Photo credit lmcdphotography

Style: Intense Spy Game
Where: 55 Southwark Street
When: Currently booking until end August.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Not suitable for those with mobility issues.

Spy City is a huge and sprawling, ambitious and highly engaging action adventure in which the audience are as much the stars as the (very impressive) cast.

Colab Theatre has become a byword for quality in immersive theatre. The thought, care and attention they put into their shows has never left me less than wholly impressed. And Spy City is no exception.

The action is driven along from the start where you interact with your mobile phone (make sure your phone has a decent charge on it – this will be very helpful) and gain access to a secret world. But while the action predominantly takes place in two indoor venues, a large portion is outside, wandering around London Bridge, interacting with cast members and running around like you’re James Bond with mates.

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Catherine Blindell. Photo credit lmcdphotography

the main difference between Spy City and previous Colab productions I have enjoyed is that while the audience’s actions drive the plot, there are fewer choices to be made. This isn’t a criticism – it’s just a different type of immersion. This was more problem solving and throwing yourselves into a pre-ordained plot and given the area it was spaced over and the need to ensure that the production moves along in time it is totally understandable.

In the end though, the audience is forced to make a choice. One they debate and decide among themselves and one that asks a great deal of them. It’s a choice that makes us search for moral absolutes where there are none and a choice that I am still pondering the next day.

Spy City is great fun. Who doesn’t want to be a secret agent running around London trying to avoid detection by guards and counter-agents alike? Who doesn’t love a walkie talkie? Who doesn’t want to outfox an evil scientist trying to use your blood for a nefarious purpose? That is also makes you ponder deeper political questions afterwards? Well that’s the Colab bonus.

 

 

 

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Review: The Murder Express

Style: Dining theatre
WherePedley Street Station

Rating: 3/5 stars

This was my third Pedley Street experience having previously reviewed Journey to the Underworld and The Greatest Snowman. As always the food was exceptional and the show light-hearted and fun.

However, as more and more companies are doing immersive dining now, it seems that Funicular are pulling back from the more audience-led elements. So while murder express was silly, fun and charming, it wasn’t immersive.

The story is simple. Part murder mystery, part farce it’s a broad comedy which sends up all the cliches of a murder mystery in ways that put a smile on my face (as did the rather lethal absinthe cocktails!).

This isn’t a show that will change your life, but it was a great deal of fun. It’s worth the price tag for the meal alone but despite it being less involved than other shows, the action definitely adds key elements to the evening’s entertainment.

It may be frothy rather than meaty, but sometimes that’s just what you need.

Review: Jeff Wayne’s The War of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience.

Audiences are thrown headfirst into the battle between Martian and human, as they take part in the war and fight for themselvesStyle: Terrifying Immersive Musical
Where: 56 Leadenhall Street
When: Currently booking until end August.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Not suitable for those with mobility issues or epilepsy.

Dum Dum Dum (da da dum, da da dum)… Dum Dum Dum (da da dum, da da dum).

These iconic bars from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds are world famous. You know you were humming them – admit it.

The original 1978 album featuring artists as diverse as Richard Burton, David Essex and Phil Lynott has long been an absolute favourite of mine. In fact, I know every word. My best friend and I used to sing Spirit of Man to each other constantly, especially enjoying  “No Nathanial No!” or pretending to be Lynott’s mad vicar.

To match what has been living in my imagination for over 30 years was going to take some doing. But this delivered in spades.

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Emma Burnell (Left) and Shanine Salmon (Right) meet Jeff Wayne (Centre)

This is a HUGE experience. It roams from world to world, set to set, experience to experience. Like Somnai a previous production from Dot Dot this uses a lot of VR. But this was more sparing and for me it worked much better. the boat sequence, the scene inside the Martian ship and the final Air Balloon journey were all particularly good. But they were also augmented by a lot of excellent real interactions with the superb cast.

What I liked about this experience is it was genuinely terrifying in parts. They didn’t hold back from that. There were moments that were physcially challenging, moments that were psychologically challenging and moments that were both. All with an excellent soundtrack that had me dancing along even as I was being terrified!

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The cast were considerably less hammy than I am here.

I enjoyed myself throughout the War of the Worlds Immersive Experience. The second half was pacier than the first half, but both had really strong moments. I was grinning from ear-to-ear when I emerged. It’s bloody good fun with a bloody good soundtrack. In fact I would say the chances of Anyone coming to this and not enjoying themselves are a million to one.

 

 

Review: Drawing the Line

Style: Interactive self-aware storytelling
Where: Deptford Lounge
When: Until 25th May

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Drawing the line takes place in a room that looks rather like a school gymnasium. Between that and the fact that the ‘line’ is literally represented by a thick piece of rope suspiciously like those we were made to climb as children and this show started by evoking some bad memories.

Thankfully, despite there being plenty of school style activities to take part in, including chalk drawing, building blocks and an interesting take on dodgeball,  this was the last moment I felt that choking fear that anyone was going to make me climb anything.

Drawing the line is a really sweet, really beautiful and well thought out piece. Where it has limitations, in budget and scope, it finds self-referential ways to laugh through them. Where is has confusion, it makes that an explicit part of the storytelling.

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Elliot Hughes at one of the Guardians. Credit: Rosie Powell Freelance

What I like most about this show is that it doesn’t look like it cost the Earth, yet it still lets you lose yourself in its world. It’s not heavy on set like other shows, but it combines interesting elements of modelling, puppetry and simple imaginative fun to explore important political themes of division and unity, relative strength and weakness, insiders and outsiders and how the rules work – and don’t work.

The messages sometimes threaten to be heavyhanded, but in truth, the humour of the piece allows that to be drawn back from every time. The playfulness belies the seriousness of the message without undercutting it.

The three performers, Nisa Cole as the Lineswoman and Steph Reynolds and writer and Director Elliot Hughes as the Guardians are all utterly charming. They take what the audience throws at them in good grace and humour. They led the games particularly well at the performance I witnessed which was an accessible performance for those with visual impairments. Never patronising, never leading but always aware of what we could and couldn’t do.

There are some rough edges to the show, but for the most part, they belong there. They are part of what humanises this charming and captivating show. I would be interested to see what this group can and will do with a bigger budget, but I am also really grateful for the demonstration that interactive theatre doesn’t have to be high end to be high class.

 

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.

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.