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: Illicit Secrets: Bletchley

Title: Illicit Secrets: Bletchley
Style: WW2 Codebreaking drama based on real people
Where: Colab Factory, 74 Long Lane, London SE1 4AU
When: 8.00 pm until 28th August
To Note: Mobility needed to get around the rooms

Rating: 4.5/5

Another World War Win at the Colab Factory.

Illicit Secrets: Bletchley is a very clever drama. Like a predecessor Hidden Figures, it uses immersive theatre to celebrate real heroes from The Second World War – in this case, the code breakers of Bletchley Park. It does this by immersing you in their work and their world.

Tom Black as Gordon Welchman and Gabriel Burns as Keith Batey

The drama happens on three levels. Firstly, the code breaking. Every member of the audience is involved in decrypting fiendish cyphers. These are tough. Genuinely challenging and you aren’t spoon fed at all. It took us a significant portion of the evening to get anywhere, but when we did, it was seriously satisfying.

The second is the interpersonal relationships between the staff at Bletchley. Some aspects of these are more known to a modern audience than others. The story of Alan Turing is well known now, and the balance between the need to treat his situation with modern sensitivity and the need to remain true to the drama is deftly handled. Equally important are the other characters who may not be as well known but who all contributed to winning the war.

Timothy Styles as Alan Turing

The final layer is the internal spy game, with Whitehall spying on Bletchley Park to discover what could constitute a security risk. It was through this mechanism that the story is both moved on and resolved.

While Illicit Secrets: Bletchley is run by a different company than Colab Factory’s previous success For King and Country, its fair to say there’s a reasonable amount of crossover. In fact, Director Christopher Styles previously starred in FKAC. This is a team that love and respect WWII drama, who aren’t mawkish by are equally unafraid of sentimentality.

L-R Beth Jay as Mavis Lever, David Alwyn as Dilly Knox, Amelia Stephenson as Joan Clarke

But don’t worry if you’re not a war buff. I’m certainly not. But the drama stands apart from the period and keeps the interest. The key events they refer to are well known enough that you don’t have to be a historian to appreciate them, though I am sure there were all sorts of lovely details thrown in to please those who’d appreciate them.

Illicit Secrets: Bletchley was fun, thought-provoking and challenging. The codebreaking made my brain hurt in a good way. The ending left me moved. The acting was exemplary. It’s not on for long, but if you get a chance – see it.

Review: The Feelgood Institute

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Dr Leon: Neural Enhancement

Title: The Feelgood Institute
Style: A collection of immersive and multisensory experiences
Where: 183-185 Union Street, London SE1 0LN
When: 12–7pm, Wednesday–Sunday, 8th June–1st July
To Note: Will need to climb stairs. Some installations use flashing lights

Rating: 3/5

The Feelgood Institute really lives up to its name. While in terms of production values, as theatre it’s a little cheap and cheerful (we were literally building things from rubbish at one point), the commitment to character and the experience were just as present as they are in bigger, glitzier shows.

The installations included a tribute to the glory days of acid house, an incredibly chilled light installation and a strange fountain where they gave me wormwood to drink. Note to self – wormwood is disgusting.

The two key immersive pieces were Dr Leon: Neural Enhancement and The Society of Nice.

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The former consists of being taken through a mock surgery, from waiting-room form-filling, to being strapped to a chair, to the aftercare. The idea is that they are implanting a chip in your brain to either improve your love, power or knowledge. I went for power – don’t laugh!

Of course, you know it’s all a bit of play-acting, but there were some interesting neuro-linguistic programming techniques as well as a good dollop of mindfulness involved, so despite the fact there’s nothing new in my brain, I did come out of the experience feeling not just good, but “Better”.

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The second immersive experience was the Society of Nice. A bizarre cross between immersive theatre and playgroup,  this experience was, well, nice. Fuelled largely by puns and silliness, the performers kept the conceit going nicely despite a set literally made from cardboard boxes and hats.

The Society inducts each participant as a new Agent of Nice,  and the general aim again seemed quite mindful. Once we were fully inducted and signed on, we made a wish for ourselves and set it free into the world, while at the same time being given a nice mission to complete.

Neither of these were installations that were going to shatter anyone’s world. They didn’t give me the goosebumps of a Gatsby or Then She Fell or challenge me like For King and Country. But they were a bloody nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon. And you can’t say fairer than that.

The Feelgood Institute was part of the Merge Festival and ran during June 2018. 

Review: Dead Quiet

Ben Scheck as Esteban Moreño

Title: Dead Quiet
Style: Immersive theatre, Noir
Where: Kensington Central Library, 12 Phillimore Walk, London W8 7RX
When: Saturdays at 1.45 until 13th October 2018.
To Note: Will need to climb stairs. Some running, some darkness.

Rating: 3.5/5

Upon arrival at Kensington Central Library, you’re greeted by librarian Gwendolyn Radcliffe (Gilly Daniels). Retired now, she tells you she’s worked there for over 40 years and is still troubled by a long-forgotten crime that took place one night in 1962.

At Dead Quiet, you’re thrown into the action immediately – while still in the working part of the library. God alone knows what the ordinary punters quietly checking out books and CDs thought of our talk of long forgotten cold war intrigue between the US, Cuba, USSR and the UK, never mind the spiritual investigator Jack Daw (Ben Hale).

Eventually, we are taken to the basement of the library – not a place the public regularly see. The only problem we had with this was the excitement of some of the more local participants at wanting to explore the space rather than the plot. We were told of an unexplained death the night of a music festival in 1962 and the ghost that has haunted the library ever since.

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Gerardo Cabal as Hector  and Neil Summerville as ‘The Shabby Man’

Dead Quiet is unusual for an immersive piece as it happens in three acts and two semi-intervals. Divided into investigatory groups, in act one, each individual within the group is assigned a different character to follow, in act two, the group investigate together and in act three there is the denouement.

In between the investigatory acts, the groups came back together to swap notes, theories and anything else they have learned along the way. Who is an agent of whom? Who is working with whom?

The show is tightly plotted. With everyone following different characters in the first act, and the audience improvising their interrogation in the second, the actors do extremely well to both stay in character but also to remember just how much they have revealed to whom. The individual plots weave in and out of each other seamlessly to create an incredibly engaging and coherent whole.

Kensington Central Library is a great place to set this drama and production company ImmerCity have done well from this partnership. Just rabbit warren enough to add to the sense of intrigue and just brave enough to let the audience wander around in the semi-darkness, the staging was as tight as the scripting.

Gerardo Cabal as Hector and Monica Nash as ‘The Model’

For those readers who haven’t met me before, this may be the moment to let you know I have a *slight* tendency to be a bit bossy and take-charge (my friends are now weeping with laughter at the *slight*). That was indulged to an extent by my fellow participants (I just give off an aura!) and they let me lead some of the interrogations. But we all got a reasonable crack of the whip and a good time seemed to be had by all.

A crack investigative team is only ever as strong as its weakest member and on this occasion that was most definitely me. My guesswork was a long way off – though one of my fellow participants got the ending spot on.

If I have a quibble at all with Dead Quiet it is with the third act denouement. For the first two acts, Gwendolyn and Jack are there to guide us through the drama and help us to reach our conclusions about what has happened.

But at the end, this is Gwendolyn’s tale. And it is her that takes us through the “Poirot” moment, unmasking the killer and revealing the plot.

I would have prefered for the audience to have been forced to make a decision about who the killer was before it was revealed. Even if – like me – we got it completely wrong. It was just a slightly less immersive end to what had up to that point been a spot-on experience.

But that is a minor note, not a major flaw. Dead Quiet was a genuinely fun and enjoyable way to spend my Saturday afternoon. It’s noir atmosphere and complex storyline kept me enthralled throughout.

Dead Quiet is showing at the Kensington Central Library until October 13th. Click here for more information. 

Review: Phase Three

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Title: Phase Three
Style: Immersive theatre, puzzle solving, futuristic
Where: Safehouse 1 – 139 Copeland Road, London SE15 3SN
When: 15th & 16th September
To Note: Will need to climb stairs. Some running, some darkness.

Rating: 3.5/5

It’s several hundred years in the future, and the world is run by an evil, part-AI overlord. His disdain for those still fully human is such that he passes a law that they should be treated as pets. Your only hope is to team up with a group of rebels and try to open a portal to The Realm, a utopian land that will help you escape the nightmare.

Broken Stereo is an interesting small immersive theatre company who put on short pieces that involve an element of puzzle solving alongside their storytelling. The last piece I saw by them was in the same derelict venue (Basic Space), which was then doubling as the dwelling place of a Victorian ghost. That this space successfully doubles up as both futuristic and historic speaks to the place of abandoned buildings in our psyche, but also to the clever way the company use the space to tell stories.


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Participants were divided up into three teams and each is given a guide. Mine was Winnie (Izzy Richardson) who ably led us through the tasks we needed to perform to reach utopia. She was also tasked with giving us a lot of exposition and setting up the tensions to come between her and the other rebel leaders.

The backstory was complex and probably needed either simplifying or more time devoted to helping us understand it. But despite that, there was a genuine building of tension between the three main characters. That we could hear their missions from elsewhere in the house helped to spur on our sense of competition. The atmosphere was also aided by the eeriness of the deprogrammed AI  unit (Sasha Butler) who wandered blankly through the action stopping only to accept or reject passwords. We were taken around the space well and thrown into an enjoyably challenging set of quests.


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There was perhaps an imbalance between the puzzle solving and the backstory in favour of the puzzles. This was the right choice as that is by far the most enjoyable aspect of the show. The tasks are well devised and tax your brain just the right amount to find solving them satisfying without being too excruciatingly hard. When my team won, I felt a genuine sense of satisfaction at a job well done.

This is a very short show, running at approximately 40 minutes,  and my major complaint was that there wasn’t enough time to fully enjoy it. I felt that I was just getting into my puzzle-solving stride the moment it was time to go. I would love to see Broken Stereo get the funding to develop it further as both the imagined world they depict and the work they put into devising interesting puzzles deserve a deeper look.

Phase Three will be showing again on 15th & 16th September as part of the BasicScratch Festival. Click here for more details.