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: 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!