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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Vulnerability is Massively Important – Interview with Owen Kingston of Parabolic

Owen Kingston looks like a pirate king. Even in a small coffee shop dashing between engagements, he looks larger than life and like he should be brandishing a cutlass (very unfair, given he is incredibly sweet natured).

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Owen Kingston as Captain Alan Howard in For King and Country

He’s been a theatre director for 20 years, and doing immersive theatre for the last five. He went to see The Drowned Man, and it changed everything for him. “it made me think completely differently about everything I had done up to that point. All I wanted to go was create that kind of work, that had that kind of audience experience built into it.”

Owen is the Venue Manager for Colab Factory which hosts both the Immersive Great Gatsby and For King and Country. He’s also the Artistic Director of Parabolic Theatre, which produced the latter which he directed and plays a role in.

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For King and Country is due to close at the end of the Summer, but has been an extraordinary success. It took Owen months trying to get the project right before he was even willing to talk to anyone else about it. For four weeks at least the idea existed only in his head and after that, it was a couple of weeks of technical work before he was ready to take it to other people, rehearse and block it out.

Owen has a company he knows and trusts implicitly. He has built this up over time and adds to it with each production. He brings on new people but finds it easier to work with the same expanding group repeatedly. “For my own sanity I’d prefer it if the cast as most people I’ve worked with because I have a shorthand with them already and it makes it less laborious.”

This isn’t down to cliquishness, but to the very specific type of work that Owen creates. King and Country, for example, isn’t just immersive, it’s entirely audience-led. The actors can never expect to get fully onto a set of rails. They have to be facilitators as much as they are entertainers and that’s a very specific skill set. “You want actors who are really sensitive to the audience members they’re with and are able to tailor what they’re doing accordingly. And who can instinctively read a room and know where to go for different things.”

Trust is particularly important in immersive theatre. “In the sort of theatre we do vulnerability as is massively important. And it’s nearly impossible to be vulnerable with somebody you don’t trust.”

Audiences Are Paramont

This is part of why Owen is very protective of his cast and very aware of the need to be a good employer. Both in terms of the staff’s welfare and the need for them to be able to perform and deliver. Staff are actively encouraged to take time off for both physical and crucially mental health issues.

“We have a rule if they’re having serious issues in their personal life, if they’re not they’re not feeling mentally fit, we would treat that seriously as if they had the flu. We’re not going to let them on if they’re vomiting into a bucket. Similarly, we’re not going to let them go on if they have just broken up with their long-term partner and they’re in a total mess.

I think it’s so important because audiences experience for any theatre company has to be paramount. And if your audience experience can be harmed by anything, you have to take that seriously as a risk and in a West End musical your audience experience is unlikely to be harmed by an actor’s personal life unless the actor can’t do the show for whatever reason. In an immersive theatre show, where the actor is responding dynamically to what the audience say to them, it’s really easy for that to get out of control if their emotional state not in control.”

Emma Burnell with the cast of For King and Country, London
Emma Burnell with the cast of For King and Country, London (soon to be turned into a game)

New Breed of Video Game

When I ask Owen what’s next for him and Parabolic, the answer is not at all what I expected. For King and Country is getting made into a computer game. As those who have read about my dream shows, you can see me getting my geek on right here. Owen says “It will be a whole new breed of video game which is where you converse with the characters in the game. For certain core things it dynamically generates the speech that comes back to you, so it intelligently responds to what you say, it remembers what you say so that it can bring it up again later.”

The gameplay won’t exactly match the experience of the play. It has to be developed so a player will return again and again. But that opens up an exciting possibility. “There were some things we can do way better So one thing it can do is make calls to other sites on the Internet to plug information in. So it can literally go to Wikipedia and look something up and then use it virtually instantaneously.”

Also in the planning stage is a second show – a direct sequel to For King and Country. Set four years after the original, it would feature the same characters, on an alternative D-Day. They and the audience will become leaders of the British resistance, breaking into the same bunker and fighting once again For King and Country. Owen says it’s not “nailed on” But you get the sense, from his excitement and confidence, that if he can find a way to do it, it will happen.

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Owen Kingston

There are other, less developed, plans. Plans that need a bigger site or just a different type of building. That’s not easy to find for the right cost, in the right place in Central London. But Owen Kingston is a man who makes things happen. As we wrap up, his delight in every detail of his work is what stays with me most clearly. The care he takes over audiences and actors are replicated in the attention he pays to plot and atmosphere.

Whether it be in a game, a giant warehouse or back in the bunker, there will be that magic. “It has to feel magical,” Says Owen, “otherwise, what’s the point?”

 

Ambition and Impishness. An Interview with Daniel Thompson of BROKENSTEREO

When I meet up with Daniel Thompson of BROKENSTEREO, it is in a slightly incongruous setting. Our talk is of fantasy worlds, a never-ending circus and the joy of escapism. But we’re sat in a quintessential ‘old man’s pub’ in the East End, surrounded by England bunting in the middle of World Cup fever.

 

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Daniel Thompson, Artistic Director of BROKENSTEREO

Daniel himself doesn’t wholly look the part either. He’s dressed in a smart grey shirt and the smart/casual trousers that have become the uniform of most working men over this long, hot summer. When he talks of his Hampshire upbringing, it’s also clear that part of him longs to still be a country boy – a long way away from designing fiendish games to be played in derelict houses in Peckham.

Excursive Theatre

But there is something impish about him, and it is this quality that shines through when he talks about BROKENSTEREO, and the work he describes as ‘excursive theatre’. I ask him what he means by this. “It’s a breakdown of the words. An excursion is a trip, a journey, something exciting. Excursive language is talking in lots of different narrative parts, and always deviating and going in different ways… In the end, it will be a blend of immersive theatre, escape room and theatre gaming.”

Daniel is a born trickster, which is why the gaming element of the work he produces is so strong. He sees this trickery as a quintessential part of immersive theatre “you’re playing with people, you want to trick them to believe something that isn’t quite real. I think you’ve got to be impish enough to convince people that something is real and then turn around and go “kidding!””.

Brought up on logic problems as I was, we both agree that this gaming element is key to the success of the work he’s produced so far. Recent work Phase Three relied heavily on logic-based games to get to the end of the work. It is this combination of dedication to logic and pranksterism that makes Daniel’s work so much fun.

A Different Form, A Different Theme, A Different Story

Immersive theatre is often about escapism, and BROKENSTEREO has created a whole other world, known as The Realm, that their shows allow you to escape into. Phase Three was the introduction to this world, but Daniel has plans to extend it over the coming year, with an anthology of pop-up shows running throughout the year. This will remain in experimental form, and every time you engage with the Realm it will be something slightly different. As Daniel says “A different form, a different theme, a different story. And then, at the end of the year, there’ll be a revelation to the audience.”

Eventually, the hope is that these smaller pop-ups will coalesce into a much bigger whole, where they can take on a whole building and audiences will “not only go into the Realm as it exists, but also backstage, if you will, of the Realm.”

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Publicity Still from Phase Three

This sense of worlds within worlds is clearly a fascination for Thompson. He describes his introduction to the world of theatre as a moment when – in a school drama class – hw was  asked to imagine whole new worlds. “I just remember that moment being incredible. Like nothing is here, just imagination. And by telling stories I felt completely transported.”

To and With the Audience

It is both Thomspon’s love of escapism and his desire to ‘show the workings’ that drives him. But he is also totally customer focused – an essential quality in immersive – or excursive – work. He credits this to his day job of running bars for West End theatres. “Everything I do in my day job is customer experience and how you develop that and create it and make something really exciting and good and perfect. I think that’s what you have to start thinking what you can do to and with people.”

Thompson says his ‘dream’ project would be a “massive circus type thing – blending circus and magic is something really beautiful.” This project would include spaces for new and emerging performers to develop skills and acts as well – inevitably – as off stage games to test the mind. But it would sit alongside an ongoing, living breathing world created around the circus space.

I don’t know if this is fundable or even realisable, but it is certainly true to say that the ambition BROKENSTEREO and Thompson has deserves ever bigger stages, ever more ambitious canvasses. As we leave the pub – ironically for Daniel to rush off to serve drinks to theatre punters, it has become clear that it is that combination of vision, ambition and artful impishness that is the charm of immersive theatre and of the work Thompson is doing within the medium.

 

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

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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.

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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. 

Three immersive shows someone should make

Those of us who spend our time soaked in dreams, indulging our fantasies and playing them out through immersive theatre, naturally have vivid imaginations. We seek always to find new and different sandpits to play in.

But if money were no object, what other areas of culture, history or life in general, would I like to wallow in through the medium of immersive theatre? Here I offer three examples I think would make wonderful shows.

54 – Dreams of Disco and Debauchery

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The 70s were a time of glitter and glory, and nowhere was that more true than at the legendary nightclub Studio 54. The club was the erratically beating heart of the New York club scene from 1977 to 1979. Fuelled by cocaine and excess (only the latter of which would be replicable in an immersive theatre setting, obviously) it was the place to be and to be seen to be.

Any production could draw heavily from Third Rail’s similar 70s production Grand Paradise, though with a more urban than tropical vibe.

While the drugs and actual sex would not be possible, legal or moral to recreate, there are plenty of moments and characters from those days that would make for an incredible experience, from Bianca Jagger riding a horse across the dancefloor to the gift of a trashcan full of cash the club owners gave Andy Warhol for his birthday.

Audiences could be encouraged to find their own inner disco queen, dressing up to attend as many do for The Great Gatsby.

Overall, this would be a wonderful world to recreate and to get lost in.

Grim Fandango

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Simply one of the best computer games ever made, Grim Fandango turned me from occasional participant to gamer.

Set in the Land of the Dead the story centres on “travel agent” Manny Calavera as he fights for his wronged client Meche Colomar and uncovers corruption in the agency he works for.

There are so many ways this wonderful, complex, lush world could work as an immersive experience. For example, as a live gaming experience where the participants follow the gameplay of the original or by bringing the different stages of Manny’s journey to glorious technicolour life and allowing us to dally in our favourite scenes.

Unlike many computer games, the characters at the heart of Grim Fandango are well written, complex and deep. From the demon Glotto – who loves boozing and working his magic on souped-up engines and is loyal to a fault, to the beat poet and femme fatale Olivia Ofrenda whose complex relationships drive the story on and the men wild.  These characters would be a joy for any actor to inhabit. The way the gameplay is written also gives a lot of clues to the ways a production could set them up to give the audiences a wide variety of experiences.

I never wanted to live in GTA’s San Andreas and have no desire to inhabit the world of Portal. But I’m dying for a chance to visit the Land of the Dead.

Election: In it to win it

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Do you have what it takes to get elected? To convince an audience of your peers they should vote for you to represent them at the end of the night.

This show would give participants a variety of roles including candidates of various stripes and seriousness (someone will get to play Lord Buckethead), election agents, Press Officers, journalists and more. Other’s will have a more floating and observing role, making sure that democracy happens in public.

This show would go in depth into what it is like behind the scenes in politics. While the participants will get the chance to take part in the big set piece events like hustings and TV interviews the participants would also have to learn to stick to election law and funding limits and the gameplay would present scenarios that show up the tension between the various roles and the rules.

This might work well initially as an educational experience for young adults on the brink of voting age, to give them a sense of how the democratic process works up close. But done well, it would also have real value both in educational and – vitally – entertainment purposes for adults too.

Was Immersive Cinema Frank N Furter’s Most Fiendish Creation?

When you think of immersive cinema, you think of the lush creations of Secret Cinema – the hedonistic world of Moulin Rouge, the sexually charged innocence of Kellerman’s summer camp, the excitement of hiding from stormtroopers on Tatooine. You don’t tend to think of a bunch of gays, goths and geeks in NYC’s Greenwich Village in the 1970s.

But long before we were lining up to dance with Johnny Castle or helping Luke and Ben Kenobi escape, audiences were answering back, cheering, singing, acting and dancing along to their favourite sweet transvestite every Saturday at midnight.

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Don’t you just hate it when some bitch turns up to the party in your outfit!

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was based on the successful theatrical musical that rocked the Royal Court in London in 1975. The film was made with a tiny budget and the shoot was largely unhappy – being filmed in an old country house, Oakley Court in the freezing winter.

When it was panned by critics and failed at the box office, studio Twentieth Century Fox saw little reason to worry about it any further. They were about to shelve it, and there it could have remained, were it not for an entrepreneurial young executive who convinced the owner of the Waverly Theatre in New York to play it as a midnight screening in 1976. To say it took off is an understatement.

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Emma Burnell and friends enjoy a night at the Rocky Horror Picture Show

Audiences grew in size and boisterousness. The improvisations grew into a scripted call-and-response and a “shadow cast” started to act out the parts in front of the screen. Audiences started to dress as “Transylvanians” and bring props such as toast, toilet paper and party hats. One midnight showing in New York was soon replicated across America and then the world. It has never stopped being on limited release and is the longest-running cinema release in history.

By 1980, the phenomenon was such that it featured as part of the movie Fame. As they visit the Waverly, the usually repressed character of Doris takes off her top and dances on stage in her underwear. It was a rite of passage for the character and, watching Fame on video in the mid-1980s, it was seeing that scene  that started a lifelong love affair for me.

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Taken by me the first time we (illicitly) watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Christmas 1987

I have now seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the cinema dozens of times. After seeing that scene I knew I had to see the movie. And while seeing it at home for the first time was exciting, it was never enough.

I soon became a semi-regular at the showings at the Prince Charles Cinema after it started it’s unbroken weekly run of the show in 1991, bringing my props and my friends along too. The call-and-response was easily learned from the 1983 album Say It: The Rocky Horror Picture Show Audience Participation Album. I knew it by heart, but also knew that improvisation on the part of the audience was also much valued. There’s nothing quite so dispiriting as someone just parroting the 1983 jokes back at the screen by rote rather than celebrating the freedom of the experience.

In 2015, Rocky Horror celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special showing at the Royal Albert Hall. The crowd are a little older now – though plenty of teens are still finding it (and themselves through it) – for the first time. But they are no less riotous, no less loud, no less fabulous than they ever were. Free for one night to dress up in the sexiest, schlockiest gear they own and Do The TimeWarp Again.

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Emma Burnell with Patricia Quinn who played Magenta in Rocky Horror at the 40th-anniversary celebrations

 

It may not be immersive cinema as it has become. But ultimately going to the Rocky Horror Picture Show (and it’s theatre equivalent)  has all the hallmarks of an immersive experience. An empowered audience, a joyous two-way experience and a sense of being part of things that is what draws the crowds to the immersive experience time and time again.

It is that wicked combination of freedom and frisson that Rocky Horror gives an audience that is at the heart of the immersive experience. The sense that if we “dream it” hard enough, we too can “be it”. Rocky Horror isn’t usually spoken of as ‘immersive cinema’ and the artform largely grew up separately from the cult phenomenon. But it is hard to miss the fact that all the elements are there and have been for more than forty years.