Immersive Dorian Gray

Style: Promenade-style interactive storytelling
Where: St Peter’s Bethnal Green, Saint Peter’s Close London E2 7AE

Rating: 4 stars

There are many different approaches to immersive theatre – all of which have their own gains for audiences. With Dorian Gray, the drama cleverly blends the audience interactivity with the more “on rails” experience of a promenade show. Thus, while the audience doesn’t lead the story or have an impact on its dramatic points and outcomes, they are fully drawn into the world and feel a personal stake in it.

The story is fairly well known and pretty simple. A man is offered a chance to retain his youth and beauty forever and he takes this deal with the devil gladly. Who wouldn’t?

But this has a lasting and devastating impact on his own dissolution as a person and his behaviour with increasingly tragic consequences for those around him. He leans in to the friends who lead hin down a darker path and rejects those whose search for – and celebration of – beauty goes beyond the superficial.

The action here flows well. The audience direct their own journey to enough of an extent to feel they have some agency and there are amusing and well played interactions with the characters that give you the real sense of who they are and a buy in to their actions and the motivations behind them.

There are choices to be made, and as such, you will – as in so much immersive theatre – never experience the whole piece. You will see different parts of different storylines. But these were woven together skillfully enough to ensure that this was never jarring and you had enough sense of the movement of the whole even as you only experienced pieces.

Before the show, I discussed with my companion for the night the lack of what we might consider real, actual debauchery in the original text (this may say more about my companion and myself than Oscar Wilde, or perhaps more about what is acceptable in modern times). Given this, Dorian’s descent from innocent to corrupted and corruptor was well signified and the journey was properly satisfying – even if the actual act of smoking a cigarette or – indeed – doing a line or two – may feel less depraved.

Overall, Immersive Dorian Gray was a piece that was thoughtful, satisfying and a lot of fun. It kept the audience both engaged and involved without changing the key elements of a story that we all know a little but a little less than we perhaps think we do.

Cyanide at the Speakeasy

Style: 1920s-style murder mystery
Where: Colab Tavern, Elephant and Castle

Rating: 4 stars


That’s the question you are at Cyanide at the Speakeasy to solve.

Speakeasy owner and all round crook John Hartsby has died in the night and suspicion fills the air of the illegal speakeasy he ran. So what has happened, why, how and who was involved.

As an audience we are transformed into detectives – led by (surprisingly British) investigator Rutherford (Sam Emmerson). We are immediately introduced to the four suspects, Nightclub singer and, now, widow Rose Hartsby (Alice Corrigan), Trader by day and card player by night Nick Cartaway (Chris J Railton), Receptionist at his firm – the dumb blonde Daisy (Lauren Shotton) and the new bartender James Ratney (Richard Delroy).

The whole group are encouraged to question each of the suspects as they withdraw to separate spaces and we uncover more and more about their relationships to each other and to the deceased.

Cyanide in the Speakeasy is an incredibly fun way to spend a night out. The vibe is a mix of that sense of a speakeasy itself (there is a *lot* of drinking going on) and a murder mystery evening. Me and my guest found ourselves wandering from place to place without ever feeling lost or bored. We were coralled just enough for the evening to have structure and given just the right amount of freedom to choose our own adventure.

The cast are incredibly well versed in their characters to the point that questioning them is genuinely fascinating. There is clearly a lot of very well thought through backstory. So much so that I am not sure we ever even plumbed the true depths of it. They are completely at ease in the interactive mode – improvising clever asides and interactions while never losing sight of the story and the destination they are trying to steer the audience towards. At one point, I lost myself down a complete and utterly wrongheaded rabbit hole and the person I was interrogating at the time handled it with humour and aplomb!

Cyanide at the speakeasy is an easy introduction to interactive, immersive theatre. It’s gentle humour is combined with a storyline that is complex enough to allow the audience to feelt hey are being challenged without leaving us baffled and frustrated. Combine that with the professionalism and obvious love of craft from the actors and we were delivered a great night out in a Martini glass.

The West

Style: Western Hi Jinx
Where: Colab Tavern, Elephant and Castle

Rating: 3.5 stars

The West is a lot of fun. The night that I attended was press night and so perhaps had fewer rowdy punters and more cynical hacks than normal (there was a lot less dressing up than I would usually see at this kind of event) but it still had a certain bonhomie that was brought in the spirit of audience and cast partnership. The show as a whole zips along and has a lot of hidden ideas and ways in which you could see elements that would bear repeatability. The audience was divided roughtly into thirds which means that we all had different experiences along the way. Adding that to the fact that the storyline had huge elements of participation from the audience, giving the cast a chance to playfully interpret event the whackiest of the audiences ideas into semi-reality.The storyline for The West is pretty basic – not unfitting for the kind of western it is a homage to. A town is undersiege and needs to be rebuilt but a bad element is ready to do it down and it is up to – the good folks of Ulverton to rebuild and then protect it. The fact that we chose to build a Bordello and a strip joint (though we did also unionise both) tells us something about us as an audience – and it’s not clear we were that much the good guys really. Most of the elements of The West are good fun. But they don’t always make for as cohesive a whole as I have experienced previously at Colab Tavern. That can be overcome as the show beds in. Where it’s greater weakness lies though is in a lack of a sense of jeopardy. The players were clearly fans of world-builder games like Civilisation which feed into the elelmet of building the town. But we had too much money, too easily come by. Equally, we followed a trail of clues but the clues themselves were a bit too cryptic and the nudges from the cast too obvious – there could be a better balance between the two. A love letter I wrote that was supposed to be a critical element was never referred to again once posted. A vital secret never brought to fruition.

All this is easily fixable though and the base of the world created here is great – a fun place to be and well thought through. The cast are committed and engaging and well versed in dealing with the kind of audiences who want to pretend to be cowboys and saloon gals. The West is fun but frothy – it just needed to be a bit more frightening.

Review: The Gunpowder Plot

Style: Museum-led promenade
Where: Tower Vaults, Tower of London

Rating: 3/5 stars

There is much promise to The Gunpowder Plot, but as yet, much of it remains unfulfilled.

As a lover of immersive theatre, this was not nearly as interactive as I felt it was sold as. It ressembles most the immerisve War of the Worlds – which was a great experience but wasn’t marketed as something you could have a great deal of influence over.

Here you are told you will be involved in foiling (or perhaps furthering) the gunpowder plot. But the choices you make are minimal and don’t really seem to much afffect the outcome.

In choosing to have a famous actor (Tom Felton) ‘play’ Guy Fawkes, they have also made the final live action scenes feel really quite weird in ways I can’t really explain without spoiling them.

Overall the acting of the show is good and the cast guide you well through the experience. And that is what it is – it is an experience, not an immersive theatre show. Judged on those criteria, it is reasonably fun and I expect it comes as a really fun addition to a day out at the Tower of London. It’s isn’t designed for immersive snobs like me. But were my nephew and neiece a little younger I culd imagine this being an enormously fun way to engage with learning about an important period of our history.

The final problem with the show is that, like so many other things like it, the VR just doesn’t work very well. I had trouble with two out of the three VR experiences. I am continually surprised that big shows like this opt to rely so much on this seemingly still deeply unreliable technology.

Overall, I had fun. But ironically, I wasn’t blown away.

Great Gatsby

Photograph Mark Senior

Style: The Roaring Twenties
Where: Immersive LDN, 56 Davies St, Mayfair, London, W1K 5HR

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

For anyone who has read and studied the book, the immersive Gatsby experience can be a little odd. The production goes heavy on the party elements of the roaring twenties, encouraging the audience to dress up in their finery and dance and drink with (somewhat) abandon. This is why the first half of the show is about twice as long as the second half which focuses on the tragic element of the plot. This is a fun night out wrapped up in a theatre show – and none of F Scott Fitzgerald’s contempt for and judgement of Gatsby and the carelessness of the people he surrounds himself with survives that party atmosphere. How could it? For it to do so would be to judge the people who have chosen to spent their time and money on the production.

I have watched this show develop over the years from it’s infancy to the slick production it is today. So I suspect I have a different take on it than someone coming with fresh eyes might have. Nothing in this current version is wrong, but I have seen a lot of it before – it’s an evolution not a revolution and as such it’s probably time for me to hang up my beaded dress and let a fresh pair of eyes get a take on it next time.

The show is still great fun. This time my group weren’t taken out of the main room at all so we didn’t see any of the side fun, but that too was an interesting perspective and the cast work really hard to make sure there’s always something to be watching. They also dealth well with an increasing drunk and emboldened crowd who had a fair bit to say about both the actions and characters involved.

Music is central to this production. From the fun teaching of some basic Charleston moves (which I was still awful at!) to the closing mournful number, it is music that moves the production along as much as the action. The cast sing beautifully. And the final scene of harmony singing from all corners of the room sends a chill down the spine.

In terms of the story, while the first half is about twice as long as the second, it is mostly establishing the careless and monied world of Gatsby and his friends. It is in the second half where the real drama takes place and while compressed, this is well done and at times truly moving.

I wouldn’t normally review a venue, but the venue is also absolutely inherent to the story. There are a few issues that they still haven’t rectified since the last time I was there. Firstly, the bar is incredibly slow. I was only ordering a Diet Coke and was stood behind someone ordering cocktails. These take ages to make. They ought to simplify the menu or have more pre-made as no one goes to immersive theatre to spend 30 minutes queueing.

It also slightly bothers me that for all the jazz, they haven’t set up the iconic green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. This would be so easy to do and could be such a lovely touch.

My only other (very minor and insignificant) gripe is that the actors playing Gatsby and Nick Carroway look really similar. That’s not their fault and both are excellent in the roles. But they also play very similar and at times I had to struggle to distinguish them. This may have been an artistic choice – it may be a comment on how much they actually want to be each other – but perhaps a slight change of costume would have confused a bear of so little brain as I.

Overall, Great Gatsby is what it wants to be. They are well practised, know their audience and play to their not inconsiderable strengths. It is more a great night out than it is a theatre show. But if you go in there with those expectations, you will not be disappointed.

Review: Threshold

Style: Immersive, futuristic scavenger hunt
Where: The Crypt, Bethnal Green

Rating: 4/5 stars

Threshold is another thrilling adventure from Parabolic Theatre. With the ability to play online or in person, you solve a series of mysteries and clues as well as being faced with moral choices where there are no rights or wrongs – just different endings.

The show revolves around the hunt for an individual who has passed through a threshold between worlds and realities. There’s a tinge of His Dark Materials to the concept – not least the fact that we learn that this passing through is causing structural damage and collapse that threatens all realities.

Players in real life play in socially distanced bubbles of up to six people and each team is given a mission to fulfil. I have to admit that quite a few of my team got a little overexcited at the idea of finally being out and were a little, shall we say, over-refreshed (personally, and unusually, this was not me!). That made getting them to concentrate on the tasks at hand harder and their gung ho attitude to getting the mission achieved led to a fair bit of line overstepping (which was handled absolutely admirably by the cast and team). Basically, don’t give a bunch of drunk girls from Hackney the idea they should be intimidating people, because they know how to do it better than you can imagine.

We failed fairly spectacularly at our mission. But that didn’t dampen our enjoyment of either the show or the running around trying to achieve it. trying to drag my drunken sister off of various Deliveroo drivers she had decided to interrogate was more complex, but that was down to us – not the show!

The only thing that fell down slightly for me was the interaction with the technology. I didn’t get a WhatsApp until we were almost all of the way through and we also failed to properly connect to the Zoom to get (much needed) help from the online team. It’s not a huge deal and eminently fixable – like the popups that occasionally appeared on screen – but did take you a little out of the action.

But just as Parabolic have mastered online immersive over the pandemic and real life before that, they will clearly master this enjoyable and intriguing hybrid format.

I came away from Threshold feeling that I had only scratched the surface of what the story was and how it could all unfold. Like all the best of Parabolic’s output, it has made me want to go back and experience it again – seeing how different it is in different iterations, with different decisions made. I am hoping, if I promise to only bring sober people, they will let me.

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

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!


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.