Review: The Greatest Snowman

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Cast of The Greatest Snowman. Photo credit @arabellaitani

 

Title: The Greatest Snowman

Style: immersive dining

Where: Pedley Street Station, Bethnal Green

To note: make them aware of food allergies, preferences etc.

3.5/5 stars

The Greatest Snowman is enormous – if slightly confusing – fun.

Played pretty much as a straight up pantomime, it come across as charmingly childlike and simple. The storyline is not taxing, and the immersive element was less prominent than in recent production by the same team Journey to the Underworld.

The food was just as delicious though. And what made this production considerably less child-friendly was the copiously flowing booze. Not that this reviewer is complaining about that! But it does make for a slight sense of dichotomy. This is a show I think my nephew and niece would enjoy, in an atmosphere I probably wouldn’t bring them to.

The scene is set by the conductor Doris (Ingrid Miller – whose performance owes more than a little to Su Pollard in Hi Di Hi) who welcomes us and flogs us Babysham (which is just as grim as you remember it being). There is then a battle for the spirit of Christmas embodied in the life and backstory of Mr Snow (Chris Heaney) – a human raised as the last of the snow people.

This is a silly romp and a highly enjoyable one. Much of your enjoyment does come from the others at your table as when the food is served the action is paused. We had a delightful bunch and were well looked after. No part of this experience is left much to chance.

Afterwards, we spent time in the lovely Christmas grotto themed bar – I highly recommend the gingerbread based cocktails.

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Photo credit @arabellaitani

Overall this is a great, fun, lighthearted night out. The food is way above average and the ambience is a delight. Once again this is not theatre that will change your life, but it will give you a rollicking good time. Just watch out for the morning after!

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Review: Divine Proportions

Title: Divine Proportions

Style: immersive dining

Where: The Vaults, Waterloo

When: Until 12th January

To note: make them aware of food allergies etc.

3/5 stars

Divine Proportions promises much and almost – almost – delivers.

The party atmosphere is apparent from the beginning. Audience members are encouraged to dress decadently and buy further glitter on arrival.

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Your intrepid author attempting to dress like a glamorous goddess…

The music is classic hen night decadence and performed brilliantly in the downstairs bar by the cast who writhe with appropriate abandon. In fact, the downstairs bar action is by far the highlight of the show.

The problem with the main action is partly one of the venue and partly one of the production.

In terms of the venue, there is no sound amplification in the parts of the room furthest from the stage. Given the open inducement to get raucously drunk and the Saturday night crowd’s absolute willingness to do so (our party was no exception), we couldn’t really hear a lot of what was going on.

The venue was very full and as such the action on the night was very much dependent on who you were sat with or next to. I went with one other person and we were surrounded and somewhat overwhelmed by much larger groups. To avoid that, I would recommend smaller groups go during the week.

IMG_0475 c Lara Maysa

Divine Proportions had a pretty high innuendo threshold and there were some genuinely sexy moments to behold. The worshipfulness of the Maenads towards Dionysus was well played in particular. A slight bugbear of mine is that for a show all about the worship of all things flesh – all the flesh was very much female. No man-candy to behold. While most of the time an all-female cast would be held to be radical, and certainly Dionysus’s empowered sexuality was an exemplary performance of a woman – or even a goddess – at home in her own body. But to have an all-female cast at this kind of show felt almost reactionary. Women for looking at and encouraging the audience to eat drink and be very, very merry.

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Divine Proportions is a fun night out. Not quite theatre, not quite burlesque, not quite vaudeville it is a decent meal with a floorshow you enjoy what you can catch of this. What I can’t tell is if it has pretensions to be more than that. if so, it should give those up and embrace its hen-night destiny.

 

Review: Frankenstein

Title: Frankenstein
Style: Site-specific promenade
Where: Sutton House, 2 – 4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London, E9 6JQ
When: Until 3rd November
To Note: Mobility required – will climb stairs, dress warmly

Rating: 4/5

Frankenstein sets itself firmly in the 80s before the show begins with a thumping and iconic 80s soundtrack. As you enter the “squat” space and are greeted by a group with a very strong ‘Legs Akimbo‘ vibe telling ghost stories. As Mary speaks, she tells of a dream she had – a dream the group shared of a family suffering a tragedy.

As they tell it the story takes over and we are led through their interpretation of Frankenstein.

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L-R: Justine (Katy Helps), Henry (Chris Dobson), Victor Frankenstein (Jeff Scott), Elizabeth (Jennifer Tyler_). Photo by John Wilson.

First my usual bugbear. This isn’t an immersive production despite being billed as such. Yes, the audience goes on separate journeys in the first half, but there is no interaction between us and the characters and no audience-led content.

What it is is site-specific. It makes excellent use of Sutton House as a venue, drawing both on its recent history as a squat and arts venue and it’s gothic grandeur as a space. It works to heighten the tension right down to having appropriately creaky wooden doors.

The story is a feminist twist on the classic Frankenstein story, strengthening the character of Justine (Kay Helps) to make her Victor’s equal rather than subordinate and making the monster a woman  (Molly Small). The traditional loneliness of the monster is heightened by her desire to become a mother – to have someone to love and depend on her wholly. While This is an interesting approach that did make the women of the piece much more visible, I’m not sure how feminist it is to centre the female experience on motherhood. But the delivery – especially by Molly Small was so powerful that it worked.

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Victor Frankenstein (Jeff Scott) and his monster (Molly Small) – photo by John Wilson.

The play uses a number of clever devices. The lighting, in particular, was exceptionally well designed not just to direct your mood, but to literally tell you what was happening. The switch from the spotlights of the action to the fairy lights of the interval literally lifted the mood. The music works to set different moods throughout and as mentioned, the use of the Sutton House space works very well.

I was less enthralled by the costumes and props which blended 1980s with early 1800s in a way that didn’t quite work for me. The show of Victor playing SEGA as he deteriorated and went into himself was well done in itself, but overall, it just confused to the point where it distracted from the drama.

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Elizabeth (Jennifer Tyler) with ‘William’ – Phont by John Wilson.

A particular mention has to be made for the puppetry. Its inherent creepiness is well rewarded with a second half twist that was as brilliantly shocking as it was dramatic. Incredibly well played out, it set the scene for an incredibly affecting last 20 minutes that I found moving, disturbing and hard to shake off. If you’re anything like me, the challenge of the last 5 minutes will stay with you for some time and it is the strength of this ending that more than makes up for any pickiness I had earlier.

This is a disturbing, enlightening and properly gothic production. The ambience and atmosphere of Sutton House suits the drama perfectly and the cast delivers thoughtful scares throughout.

 

 

Journey to the Underworld

Title: Journey to the Underworld

Style: immersive dining

Where: Pedley Street Station, Bethnal Green

When: Until 7th November

To note: make them aware of food allergies etc.

3.5 stars

Schlocky Horror!

Dinner theatre is back and it’s gone immersive. This show – set in the main in a well-appointed train carriage journeying to hell – is great fun, if a little on the silly side.

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The story is pretty basic – the train’s conductor is actually a long-lost lover of a woman kidnapped by the master of hell to be his bride. For a thousand years, he’s been seeking to rescue her and tonight could be the night. Simple Fairytale fare.

The same cannot be said for the food which was anything but simple. From the sumptuous butternut squash amuse bouche to the divine chocolate and honey dessert each course was sophisticated and delightful. It didn’t necessarily match the Hammer Horror production of the play, but the interplay worked surprisingly well. I wasn’t drinking, but I was also told by companions that the cocktails were seriously up to scratch too.

Combining theatre with food has always been a tricky business (my favourite depiction will always remain Kevin Kline’s bravura performance in the much underrated Soapdish – churning out Death of a Salesman as the elderly complain about their chicken). Immersive theatre is a great answer to this. Of course the audience are noisy and rowdy – eating and drinking with abandon. They’re supposed to be – that’s part of the production.

PHOTO-2018-09-27-15-50-33-optimisedSo the cast running around serving our food, clearing our plates and keeping the story ticking along to be timed with the food (exceptionally well done here) seemed just natural. But making immersive theatre – especially a play about travelling to the underworld on a first class train – seem normal takes a great deal of skill. Claude the Conductor and his assistant Gordy did just that.

This is not the kind of immersive theatre that will challenge your inner being. It didn’t change my perspective on life and death, love or burlesque. But it was a rollicking night out. Sometimes that’s the real key.

 

Review: Accomplice

Title: Accomplice New York
Style: Immersive theatre meets treasure hunt
Where: Downtown Manhatten
When: Until October
To Note: Mobility required, alcohol and food included

Rating: 4/5

How to enjoy theatre, keep fit and see parts of Manhatten you might not otherwise experience! Accomplice is a fun, problem-solving experience which will give you your 10,000 steps all over Downtown.

You won’t receive the address until the day before you arrive and you won’t end up in the same place as you start. Along the way, you’ll be guided by a series of characters some more eccentric than others. You’ll also interact with real-life New Yorkers who will give you instructions along the way too.

Accomplice

You’re well guided through the experience. While your group will spend a lot of time alone walking between scenes and working out puzzles, the actors do pretty well at keeping your experience on the rails. Because of the alone time, your experience will be somewhat dependent on your group – throw an arsehole into the mix and it could be a considerably less fun experience.

Luckily my gang were lovely. We worked well together solving clues and following maps. We got a bit confused and tried to open a number of doors we had no right to access – but overall, we Worked well on the puzzles and found them just the right level of challenging and fun.

This game isn’t for everyone. You’ll be walking through crowded spaces and sometimes covering quite long distances. But for those who Can take the walking and crowds, this is a really enjoyable way to see the Lower East Side.

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.

Tight Knit Company

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?”