Friend of the blog Shanine Salmon has reviewed Darkfield over at View from the Cheap Seats.
Darkfield return to London with all three of their mutisensory shows; Seanceand Flightwhich were previously seen at the Vault Festival and Coma making its London debut after a run at the 2019 Edinburgh Fesitval Fringe
One of the nicest things about writing this blog is how much I have got to know some of the immersive theatre community. In particular, I have become an ardent admirer and fan of the work that comes out of Colab Factory.
In part, this is because the central cast and crew are just so bloody nice. In part, it’s because their shows are so well put together and thoughtful. But mostly, it’s because they combine these two factors into the centrally important, overriding element that makes immersive theatre work: they put the audience’s experience at the heart of what they do.
Writing a review without spoilers is tough enough. Writing a preview even harder. But I will do my best.
Last week I was privileged to spend an afternoon with the team as they blocked out, rehearsed and tested their latest adventure Bridge Command. Part computer game, part immersive spaceship simulation, this short family-oriented show gives the small (6 person) audience/crew the change to learn a set of computer-based roles and systems and make game-changing decisions.
The rehearsal process was fascinating as the actors both had to facilitate the action enough to ensure they were learning new things each time they ran through the scene but also remember that they were testing how usable the technology was for an audience facing it for the first time.
One thing that hadn’t occurred to me was that they have to rehearse for different types of audience. In this case from kids hyped up on sugar to drunken stag dos. Watching them do so was both revealing and fascinating and has made me vow to make sure my gin money is spent mostly after the performances from now on!
In the show, all the tropes of space travel fun are engaged. The technology is challenging at first – part of the testing is ironing that out – but when you get to grips with it, there is much fun to be had. Each member of the crew faces different challenges as per their assigned role and overall, each will contribute to the joint success or failure of the venture.
I saw Bridge Command while still in rehearsal so am aware only of its potential (and let’s face it, as a Colab project it has a lot of potential) but can absolutely see not only how enjoyable it will be as a family experience, but how much I hope I will get to take along my computer-loving nephew one day.
Style: Technology-enabled walking tour Where: Central London
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Tracing Erased Memories is a concept that attempts to put you in the shoes of young, enthusiastic, impassioned protestors and their personal testimonies of mistreatment at the hands of the police. The experience is a guided journey, where a guide steers you from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square while you listen on headphones to speakers from the London Student riots of 2010 and the Cairo Riots of 2011.
As you walk, you see a similar journey filmed between Talaat Harb Square and Tahrir Square in Cairo joining the two pieces on a similar journey. Watching the street you aren’t on while walking a place as familiar as Whitehall was discombobulating but that also allowed you to get into the more nervous mindset of the protestor – particularly one unused to protest.
The stories of the protest were interesting. Every now and again you would stop and hear someone tell of the way they were treated – either by strangers or the police – both in Cairo and London. The multi-media presentation blended news footage, animation and new video with the sound of the stories and the street.
This is a very interesting way to spend an hour and to think about protest, protestors and the reaction to them. The show has a point of view, and it is presented well. Even when I didn’t agree with the point of view of the protestors (there was some conspiratorial thinking that I am pretty confident isn’t true) I understood what was driving them to feel that way. the presentation of the violence of the state was impressively intimidating and while I have gone on many, many protests in my time, I have never been kettled and it was moving to hear the pain of those who had. For that to be their early experience of asking for their voices to be heard in a democracy.
The show is unabashedly presented from a left-wing perspective. This, of course, suits me down to the ground. But I do think there might be mileage to hear from the voices of those who protest from the opposite perspective. Not becuase I would ever wish to be – or have anyone be – persuaded by their arguments, but because I think the contrasts and similarities of experience would be fascinating. Imagine doing a similar project, but with those who marched against education cuts on the one hand and in support of Tommy Robinson on the other. What could each side teach each other about their shared experiences?
But that’s a minor thought and doesn’t distract from the interest or power of the original. It’s a journey that has easy distractions, as you weave around tourists guided by your guide and watching your Cairo counterpart’s journey. This is an ongoing project that has been developed first in Amsterdam and now in the UK and Cairo. Part art installation, part immersive walking tour it is interesting and engaging. You can see much potential in the idea and the concept and I look forward to seeing where they take it next.
Style: Immersive dining experience Where: Undisclosed location near Hoxton When: Booking until end September
Rating: 5/5 stars
Not suitable for those with mobility issues, though email to see what they can do.
Gingerline keep their secrets close to the chest, which makes reviewing their immersive dining experiences difficult. I don’t want to accidentally give away details that are best left unshared until after you have done it.
However, I persevere! Chambers of Flavour is the second Gingerline experience I have done and is significantly different from The Grand Expedition. Where that was static, in this experience you move from place to place and need to be pretty mobile to do so.
The food is exciting and interesting. Extremely varied, it is also well spaced out so despite eating a significant number of courses, you don’t feel overfull at any time. The drinks are also excellent – with good wine and fun cocktails designed to accompany the food well.
This is a more challenging experience than Grand Expedition and for me a better one for it. Each chamber offered a challenge, or a game or an experience that complimented the theme of the food while also keeping us in childlike giggles or wonder throughout.
Chambers of Flavour is not cheap, but it definitely delivers value. the food is delicious, but it is the fun with which the whole experience is delivered that really packs a punch.
Style: Interactive Treasure Hunt Where: Underbelly Festival When: Booking until 29th September
Rating: 5/5 stars
Not suitable for those with mobility issues.
If you’ve lived in a city all your life, it can be quite hard to find ways to look at it with fresh eyes; new ways to explore it and see it anew. 80 Days was held around the corner from my last two offices in an area I know very well. The park you start it was where I had sat and had coffee with my old boss just last week. So the fact that I found so much joy in the London of this experience, and learned so much about an area I thought I knew was a sign of the exceptional amount of thought and quality that has been put into this experience.
Upon arrival, you are sent off with a map and log into a website. the map covers most of the Strand and Covent Garden. The website has clues to find as well as map references. It also has shops to buy things along the way to help with your journey around the world. Each solved clue gives you more money – as do (if successful) wagers with the cast.
The cast and the game are charming, imaginative and inventive throughout. The clues are reasonably challenging and the trick is to plan your route well to ensure you maximise your opportunities to earn and buy. They clearly put an awful lot of thought, time and effort into creating an experience that worked incredibly well. We ran all over and enjoyed ourselves enormously even when we failed to find clues.
I genuinely can’t think of a better way to have spent a sunny Sunday afternoon. Boris Johnson may be elected PM tomorrow, We may No-Deal Brexit by the autumn. But in the meantime lovelies, go run around London like a loon trying to solve clues and win dice games. All the while singing the theme tune from Willy Fog.
My only quibble with this show is both that I really want to do it again, but am not sure that it would work twice as I now know both a number of the clues (though if you go and find out what hat the blue lady is wearing please, please tell me as it was my unsolved clue and is driving me mad!) and what equipment is best. But this is a minor thing based solely on how much I enjoyed it the first time around. And I will definitely hope to see a lot more from this production company.
I heartily recommend this adventure for anyone who fancies doing something a bit quirky, a bit different and a lot charming.
Style: Immersive Murder Mystery Where: 55 Southwark Street When: Currently booking until 6th September
Rating: 5/5 stars
Not suitable for those with mobility issues.
By the people who brought you Dead Quiet, this is another fascinating immersive murder mystery. Here, the vicar has been stabbed on the wedding day of local gang leader’s son Jim Slice and you are brought back to watch all the action of the day in the atmospheric space of an East End church.
Like with Dead Quiet, this had three distinct acts. In the first, you are allocated a character to follow. This you do diligently, following them around the church, into nooks and crannies, vestries and belltowers. As you go along you learn more and more about the dodgy dealings and goings-on of this 1950 crime family.
All post-war life is here – and all of it is tinged with the recent memory of that war. There are people who were lost and people who feel lost. The real Bethnal Green Tube Disaster is an integral part of the plot as is the real bombing of the host church.
The live action ends with all the characters together, cleverly part-shielded from the audience and the stabbing of Reverend Gris.
At this point, teams reconvene, gather for refreshments and bring together their stories and exchange clues and theories.
Up to this point, the action has been largely promenade rather than immersive, but that all changes in the second half. Now that the action has been established – and all but the actual murder witnessed by at least some of the audience, it is now time we come into our own, given 5 minutes to interview each witness.
There are many excellently placed red herrings in the stories that played out in the first half and the questioning can take you down routes that are a long way from relevant or important to the final outcome. Much as a good detective fiction will do. It can feel frustrating, but at the same time exhilarating to follow these trails, unsure which to take and where they might lead. And at the end, each group is asked to make a choice as to who they thought did the crime. As it happens this time – unlike with Dead Quiet (which I think I under reviewed and deserved 4 stars on reflection) – I felt a lot more invested in the denouement where the victim and murderer tell their tales. I also got it right this time – but was far less sure about it!
The Unholy Marriage… is a superb collision of the atmosphere of the venue, the history of the area and a well-plotted and engaging drama that throws you into the heart of the action. It offers three very different acts – all of which were tightly plotted, gripping and excellently directed. The story was complex and demanding and the timing of the different scenes – ensuring that everyone was where they were supposed to be at the same time as making sure the audience got the experience required was extraordinary so well done to director Rosanna Malinson for achieving that so smoothly.
Some people don’t like weddings. I’m not one of them. I love a good wedding, I love a good murder mystery and this was the perfect combination of the two. An excellent way to spend an evening. Slice off a sweet moment to savour this event.
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.
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.
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.
Style: 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.