Free Solo @ The Drayton Arms Theatre

17 April – 3 May, 2018

by Jack Godfrey & Celine Snippe
Produced by Alice Greening

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Free Solo is a fantastic new musical written by Jack Godfrey and Celine Snippe, directed by Nick Leos and musically directed by Flora Leo. It follows the story of the Robinson Family in the lead up to John Robinson’s daredevil Free Solo Rick climb. Based on the true story we watch as, eleven years on, Robinson’s daughter Hazel reflects on the events that led up to her father’s climb.

Set to a folk-rock score, this new musical is sensitive, with fantastic movement and really human moments. Cecily Redmann was delightful as Hazel Robinson. Her voice was strong, and she safely navigated the changes between young and old Hazel. Simone Leonardi was an absolute stand out as the infamous John Robinson. His voice beautifully conveyed the sensitivity behind the music and gave a fantastic, human approach to the character.

Despite a few technical hitches, this musical was a thoroughly enjoyable watch, highlighting the importance of family and raising questions about responsibility and identity.

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Merchant of Venice, Sh*t-faced Shakespeare @ Leicester Square Theatre

21 April – 2 June, 2018
Directed by Lewis Ironside
Magnificent Bastard Productions

-®Rah Petherbridge Photography- Shit Live LSquare2018 (2)

Image credit: Rah Petherbridge

Look, Sh!t-faced Shakespeare basically does what it says on the tin: a production of one of the Bard’s plays, in which one (classically trained) actor is horrendously drunk. A liver-protecting schedule means that it’s a different actor each night – on Thursday, for Press Release night, it was Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Louise Lee). I honestly don’t know how someone her size managed to down the alleged eight bottles of lager and double vodka & orange without becoming catatonic, but actors are well known for their alcohol tolerance, I suppose!

We were welcomed to the show by Saul Marron in a ridiculous outfit introducing the rules of the drinking game artistic conceit of the production and disparaging an audience member’s inability to blow a bugle. (Two audience members were given noise-making devices to use if they wished to make the actor take another drink; a third had the less fun task of… holding a bucket.)

Then the play proper began, and with it, the suspicion that any and every character might be the hammered one – but when she stepped on stage it was instantly obvious that she was the one. The Merchant of Venice is not one of my favourite Shakespeares and I don’t know it intimately, but I’m fairly sure the original doesn’t have any Monty Python references, incest, calls to the Yorkshire cops, cabbage-related murders, or intermittent squawks of “aaaaaaaaaaargh” when a line went missing (which was… often). It was difficult to tell whether Lee’s level of intoxication was genuine or played up, but either way, she was certainly embracing it, and the audience was in fits of laughter as she stumbled and babbled her way through the play. The other actors’ reactions to her improvisations – and subsequent references to them throughout the play – were almost as comedic; it was clear that everyone in the cast was having an absolute ball, and taking the audience along with them.

Merchant of Venice is, of course, a tricky play to stage as a comedy in modern times due to its anti-Semitic nature and extremely problematic ending; the last production I saw of it, at the Globe, tackled this by having the tone take a dramatic turn at the end, flipping from comedy to tragedy. Needless to say, Sh!t-faced Shakespeare’s version was a far cry from the Globe, but I actually preferred their revisionist change to the ending, which entirely circumvented the grotesque tragicomedy of the original script (as I’m not sure how much was improvised and how much planned, I won’t spoil how this was achieved). However, this whole-hearted commitment to silly, crude comedy did mean that some of the play’s most affecting moments – if you prick us, do we not bleed? – felt cheapened and flat.

The question that kept running through my mind as I sat in the audience was, What would Will think if he were here watching this? I suspect the answer would be a) he wouldn’t understand a word of the improvisations because language has changed so much, but also b) if he did understand it all, Shakespeare would love it. The high school English curriculum can be blamed for drying out Shakespeare’s plays to the point of desiccation, and the resulting impression that his work is stuffy, serious, highbrow stuff, but I suspect that what I saw on Thursday night was probably closer in spirit to what Shakespeare’s troupe would have performed in his time. I am all for a return to accessible Bard.

All that said, there’s really not much to Sh!t-faced Shakespeare’s production of Merchant other than its titular gimmick, and having to cram a condensed script as well as improvised drunken shenanigans into 70 minutes took its toll on the material. If you’re after a belly laugh, and are already a few drinks the worse/better for wear yourself, this production will make for a fun evening with a few mates; but don’t expect much more than that.

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Reared, Bold & Saucy @ Theatre503

4 – 28 April, 2018
by John Fitzpatrick
Directed by Sarah Davey-Hull

Bold & Saucy Theatre Company

Reared Production PhotosTheatre 503

Photography courtesy of The Other Richard

BAFTA nominated writer John Fitzpatrick has delivered a moving and marvellously engaging fly-on-the-wall family drama. It’s a character-driven piece full of surprises, dark comedy and heartfelt moments held together by a terrifically talented cast as three generations of women clash and struggle in a too-small house.

Shelley Atkinson is pitch-perfect in the role of strained wife Eileen, vainly trying to keep her household from falling apart as tensions mount. Paddy Glynn is wonderful as Nora, the acerbic and increasingly senile mother-in-law whose performance pendulums from hilarious to heart-breaking. Danielle Phillips’ rebellious teenage Caitlin too is a joy to watch, unexpectedly delivering my favourite rendition of a Lady Macbeth speech that I’ve ever seen, along with bitter sarcasm and vulnerable moments of confession as she tries to find her way. Adding to the chaos and comedy are Daniel Crossley as the avoidant and ineffectual father, and Rohan Nedd who is side-splitting as a clueless teenage love interest. They are all an absolute pleasure to watch.

In addition, Sammy Dowson has designed a set that feels like it’s been moved wholesale from someone’s actual house. It’s incredibly detailed, reeling you in from the moment you enter the space. A half empty bottle of washing-up liquid and drying dishes sit by the sink, empty wine bottles stand by the recycling bin, childhood memorabilia hang from the walls, and innumerable other pieces of family detritus clutter every available surface.

The play leaves some unanswered questions, but I was glued to my seat from beginning to end. With dynamic direction and intelligent writing, this is not a show to be easily missed.

 

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Plastic, Poleroid Theatre @ The Old Red Lion

3 – 21 April, 2018

by Kenneth Emson
Directed by Josh Roche

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Images courtesy of Mathew Foster

Heading up the stairs from the pub to see Plastic at the Old Red Lion builds the right kind of excitement. Plastic takes us to a quintessential Essex school football pitch as we follow the lives of three students. Lisa, jack and Ben, as well as Lisa’s older boyfriend, Kev. We open on a football field, reliving the past. This is perfect, as the seating is somewhat bleacher-like and we are all able to take drinks in with us – it already felt like a football match. Kev is scoring in the Essex cup final, before we are introduced to all the characters, hearing their hopes and dreams in Kenneth Emson’s beautifully lyrical writing. In fact, if there is one reason to go and see this play – it is the writing. Lines intersect each other and seamlessly carry the story, using everyday language in an elevated, poetic way. It’s like Shakespeare, only fully accessible.

Director Josh Roche, and Lighting designer Peter Small and Sound designer Kieran Lucas have brilliantly designed and realised this play. This is a play where all the elements in design and visual direction helped bring this story to light. It was as thought through and well-crafted as the writing. The stage was simply pained up with white lines, creating a football pitch. It was only after the play that I noticed that in particularly tense moments, the cast neared the goal. The soundscape served to heighten the mood and parts from one strongly and somehow misplaced piece of classical music, was noticeably effective. The lighting was cool and was used perfectly to segment moments, change days and create atmosphere.

Look, it’s difficult to find any fault with this play. It was sublimely acted. All four actors skilfully handed rhyming verse, making it seem as though they thought in pattern naturally. Madison Clare was a standout as Lisa, skilfully walking the line of innocence and mischievousness. Louis Greatorex was fantastic, pulling all the right heartstrings. His performance was the most nuanced and alive – even when his character was simply watching what was happening on stage. Thomas Coomes served a suitably volatile Ben. His job was the hardest, his character the most outwardly charged and turbulent and he pulled this off solidly. I think he had us all worried with his violent mantra repeated throughout. Mark Weinman gave a fantastic performance as Lisa’s boyfriend. He created a performance that carried the play through it’s narrative. I can’t gush enough about the acting here – it was incredible.

I think I should mention that the themes of this play are bold and daring and horribly close to home. We deal with sex, playground politics and a nobody whose mantra is a list of school shootings. The cast navigates these beautifully. There are laughs in amongst the general electric foreboding. I don’t think anyone left the theatre in the same mood they came in. Thought provoking and tense throughout, I strongly recommend you get a ticket before it closes on the 21st.

 

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The Most Beautiful Woman in the World @ Barons Court Theatre

9 – 15 April, 2018

by Chang-jie Zhang
Directed by Xinxi Du

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We open to a harried looking writer explaining that his masterpiece is not finished. He unveils the characters from under white sheets and we’re away on the epic tale that is The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

We follow a man who hates mushrooms so much he gains superhuman strength and goes on murderous rampages (stay with me). The cunning King decides to use this to his advantage, telling the Warrior that all the King’s own enemies are sending him mushrooms. Once the Warrior has been successful, the King adopts him and sets about his ruin. However, the King’s wife – the Most Beautiful Woman in the World – is swayed by the Warrior’s goodness.

The whole play seemed a little bizarre. The storyline was good and asked the right questions for the day (what with the King maintaining facades and engineering truths over honest leadership) but I don’t think the story earned the Warriors massive emotional shifts or the man with a painted-on-moustache playing ‘the most beautiful woman in the world.’ Throughout, I found myself wanting the entire production – actors and scenery alike- to take on a heightened, farcical nature or to all take on a natural, down to earth realism. However, the actors jumped between the two, at some points jarringly so.

Kyle Gardiner was a stand out as the King. He was cunning and vivacious onstage and is certainly an emerging talent and one to watch. Chang-Jie Zhang played the writer onstage, while also being the actual writer of the play. He has clearly included some of his Chinese roots in the story’s structure. Onstage, I found that he got lost slightly in the cavernous theatre. Baron’s Court Theatre has archways and crevices to navigate and unfortunately at times, he trapped himself behind these and we lost most of his performance. Seth Kruger played the moustached Most Beautiful Woman in the World. He is another that I felt needed to choose to either farce or naturalism. Finally, Robin Khor Yong Kuan gave a respectable performance as the Warrior. His performance was fantastically physical; frightening as the Warrior, and innocent as the Prince-Warrior.

This play has a lot of potential. It did make me laugh. I feel that with an edit and a clearer style on stage, we wouldn’t stop laughing.

 

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The Sleeper, Anima Theatre Company @ The Space

3 – 14 April, 2018

Written & directed by Henry C. Krempels

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On an overnight train across Europe, a British woman finds a Syrian refugee in her bed. Longlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, The Sleeper unfolds as a fascinating and thought-provoking exploration of some of the twisted morality that surrounds the Syrian refugee crises.

The play draws largely from a real-life incident of writer/director Henry C Krempels, and the play very much feels like Krempel’s attempt to come to terms with his deeply affecting experience. We watch and rewatch the discovery of a young refugee girl on the train by a British woman and the train’s manager. These characters attempt again and again to uncover the truth about their unexpected guest before, suddenly, the narrative is flipped inside-out to be told from the refugee’s perspective. And by ‘the refugee’s perspective’, I actually mean ‘the actor’s perspective’.

It gets a little surreal.

The meta elements become fairly extreme, with actors breaking the fourth-wall and talking about the play analytically, questioning the narrative and characters that have been built and developed up to that point.

On the one hand, I found this incredibly jarring. Literally being told by the actors that everything you’ve just seen is meaningless goes quite a long way to undermine all narrative tension and development built to that point.

And yet, on the other hand, it’s this level of self-analysis that makes the play as unique and thought-provoking as it is. Touching on themes of privilege, moral obligation and guilt, it’s a sharp reminder that our views on the global refugee crisis can be woefully out-of-touch.

The story is helped along by it’s simple and creative set (by Jasmine Swan), and the strong cast. Sarah Agha brings wonderful power to her role. A refugee character is so often reduced to being nothing but a victim of circumstance, and one of triumphs of the play for me was seeing something a lot deeper. A refugee who is angry; frustrated by her predicament and by our overly-simplistic understanding of her narrative. Michelle Fahrenheim gives a sympathetic performance as a kind, yet naïve British traveller, whilst Joshua Jacob does a superb job as the pragmatic and occasionally sinister train conductor.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, The Space programs incredibly ambitious and interesting work. Though I don’t always agree with every creative decision made in its walls, it’s a venue worth supporting, and the shows leave you thinking. The Sleeper is a case in point.

 

 

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Heart Into Mouth, Theatre1880 @ Bread & Roses Theatre

7th April
By Francis Grin
Directed by Jamie Blake

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Image credit: Jamie Blake

Heart Into Mouth is a short and (bitter)sweet piece of theatre which ran for one night only this Saturday as part of the Pub Theatre Festival (Friday 30th March to Saturday 14th April 2018), which showcases new writing and talent. The cosy, stripped-back theatre space was upstairs at the Bread & Roses Theatre in Clapham, and perfectly accommodated the show’s two actors, their props (two coathangers), and set pieces (two chairs). Clocking in at half an hour, the piece followed the more-or-less autobiographical trials and tribulations of a struggling actress as she juggles degrading catering work with degrading auditions and in general a showbiz life which is, well, not all it’s cracked up to be.

This work exhibited how a number of theatrical elements can be pulled off successfully when written and acted just right. These include: the use of the second person; intertwining/interweaving anecdotal plots; repetition; and multiple roles portrayed by two actors, mainly differentiated through accent and physical mannerism. Actors Fleur de Wit and Davey Seagle took the opportunity to demonstrate their accent work and ran with it – to this reviewer’s (admittedly Australian and easily impressed) ears, each strain of Irish, RP, American, Southern, and various British brogues sounded very authentic and perfectly pitched for comedy. Because despite the somewhat grim subject matter, comedy it was, of the sort which alternated between inducing wry snickers, hearty chuckles, disbelieving/mortified groans, and the occasional suckerpunch aimed right at the heart strings.

By the sounds of it, most of the audience was comprised of theatre industry veterans, and a lot of the material hit almost a little too close to home (though I doubt Heart Into Mouth would be enjoyed half so much by non-industry punters). Perhaps not all of us had been dressed in offensive/humiliating costumes and made to burn our hands on roast turkeys, or brought to animalistic tears after repeating a passage from King Lear until it no longer made sense, or having to sit through an Uber driver’s account of his own prowess at African singing. But I’d be willing to bet that most members of that audience had, at some point, found themselves staring in the mirror after yet another rejection or nightmare hospitality shift, and wondered…. is it all worth it? Have I made the right choice?

This play does not answer that question. Instead, it posits – out of the blue, from an entirely unexpected source of wisdom – that it doesn’t matter what you choose. It just matters that you choose.

For a half-hour two-person one-night-only upstairs-in-a-pub play, Heart Into Mouth got a lot of things very right. To be honest, having read its short description on a flyer and realising that it was largely autobiographical, I had been expecting something a lot more… look, there’s no other word for it: wanky. Instead, it struck just the right balance between self-deprecating hilarity and genuine anger at and criticism of our treatment of people in both the arts and hospitality industries, with truly affecting moments sprinkled throughout stories that were so ridiculous they could only be real. For the most part, the performance was smooth and polished, the actors only stumbling on lines once and recovering quickly. Seagle and de Wit had excellent professional chemistry, bouncing off and perfectly complementing each other’s styles. Thirty minutes was just the right amount of time for this piece as well – if it were shorter it would be unsatisfying, longer and the premise might not hold out. As such, it could be difficult to find another appropriate context in which to stage it, but I hope that such an opportunity does crop up, because this sparkling little gem merits more time in the light.

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Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine, Pirates of the Carabina @ The Roundhouse

3rd – 15th April
Pirates of the Carabina, James Williams

Photography by Paul Blakemore

Last night I learnt that you’re never too old for the circus. My audience neighbours at The Roundhouse for this cabaret-gymnastic-acrobatic extravaganza were an older lady on one side and a family with small children on the other, and both parties seemed equally enthralled by the wonders on stage on front of us.

The Pirates of the Carabina have not only an excellent name but also bucketloads of talent, something which was evident right from the opening sequence, during which all performers were on stage and spinning through the air around a sort of giant mechanical maypole. The ease of their acrobatics, the smoothness of the choreography, and the exquisite accompanying live music, all combined to form an impression of absolutely surrealness, like watching sychronised swimming from underwater in a dream.

Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine is supposedly the story of ‘two fated neighbours in the course of a day’s misadventures, as they make some surprising new discoveries about the world – and each other‘, however this is not particularly clear other than at the very beginning and very end of the show. Instead, the show comes across simply as a series of unconnected, surreal, abstract acts with recurring characters (the lonely man and his temperamental cat, the steampunky ethereal dancer, the handsome and aloof businessman, the dreamy girl next door, and the clumsy travelling salesman who just wants to eat his sandwich in peace). Not a single word of dialogue is spoken onstage, but it isn’t needed, and nor really is a plot – the succession of physical feats, slapstick comedy, and stunning audio-visual tableaux are enough to keep the audience totally hooked.

I wish I had photos of my face during the performance to share my reactions with you! The number of times I gasped out loud when performers went spinning or hurtling through the air, or laughed at the silly skits and skillful facial acting, or gave a disbelieving “huh” at some clever or improbable trick… But mostly I was simply staring wide-eyed in wonderment. (And thinking: what, can every performer in this show dance, act, do acrobatics, play an instrument, AND sing?? Not fair!)

What you (and your children! bring them!) can expect from this show:
A hunky trapeze artist
A hilarious tightrope walker (nearly as skinny as his balancing pole!)
A pretty party girl who can glide through the air on ropes but struggles with stairs
A typewriter used for percussion
A roller-skate chase scene slash dance-off
A levitating piano played by a woman with the voice of an angel
A butterfly lady dancing in a hoop
A man who shouldn’t have been able to walk on champagne bottles like that

I also want to give a special shout-out to the small girl in the front row who yelled some very concerned advice at one of the performers: “You shouldn’t eat cat food, stop!!!” She has a point, you know…

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Devil with the Blue Dress @ The Bunker Theatre

29th March – 28th April, 2018

by Kevin Armento
Directed by Joshua McTaggart
The Bunker Theatre, Seaview Productions, and Desara Bosnja

Devil With The Blue Dress, The Bunker (Flora Montgomery and Kristy Phillips) - courtesy of Helen Murray

Photography by Helen Murray

‘This play exists in the space between awake and asleep… Being that kind of space, things aren’t totally realistic. It’s dimly lit. It’s set to music. And it’s where memory lives…’

Walking into The Bunker Theatre for their production of Devil With the Blue Dress really does feel like stepping into some sort of liminal space between past and present, UK and US, fiction and reality. In the cosy, brightly-lit foyer, friendly bartenders joke with patrons as they pour themed cocktails (amber-coloured for Clinton, blue for Lewinsky); step through the doors into the theatre, and you enter a space of shadows and hushed conversation, with the honeyed notes of a jazz saxophonist floating down from the corner. There is no phone signal down here – well, it is a bunker – and the thrust stage is empty, with only three sets of feet visible behind the back curtain, like puppets waiting for their strings to be pulled. The action begins when Hillary, played by Flora Montgomery resplendent in a pink pantsuit, steps out to introduce us to the play and its characters.

The two women in the spotlight in this play are, of course, Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The three other major characters – Chelsea Clinton, Bill’s secretary Betty, and Republican Linda Tripp – exist mainly to facilitate these women’s storytelling and offer alternative perspectives on events. They also play other roles where needed, most notably that of Bill Clinton. All three actresses did excellent impressions of the erstwhile president and were able to signal the switch into his role with no costume changes or visual cues except accent, mannerisms, and facial expressions (my favourite Bill was the version by Kristy Philipps). As a result, the Bill Clinton we saw on stage was both a shadowy, insubstantial figure, and a caricature; he was given no character arc or hidden motives, and all three-dimensionality was reserved for the women of the story, which I think was a powerful and effective decision.

The timing of this production, one year into the Trump presidency and at the height of the #MeToo movement, was of course no accident. Although neither topic is specifically named, much of the play’s philosophical depth comes from this contemporary context and challenges us to consider tough questions. Is consent really consent with such extremes of power differences at play? (“But of course she had a choice / But of course she didn’t”) How do we reconcile conflicting expectations of womanhood within modern feminism? (“None of you have a monopoly on how to be a woman!”) Why do we hold women in power up to impossibly high standards, when the same isn’t true for men? (“People feel like I’m corrupt, or untrustworthy, even if they can’t put their finger on why.”)

The most powerful moment in this play comes towards the end, when the narrative reaches the trial and the Clintons, their presidency, and Monica all begin to fall apart. Hillary, Monica, Betty, and Linda begin hurling accusations and insults at each other, shifting the blame, verbally tearing each other apart, and as the shouting reaches a climax, Chelsea interrupts to deliver the unvoiced central truth of the scandal. Philipps’ performance here sent shivers down my spine.

My only criticism of Devil with the Blue Dress was its metatheatrical elements. There was so much food for thought in this performance, it really didn’t need to have that extra dimension of Hillary referencing the fact that this was “her play”, and alluding throughout to the nature of theatre (the observation that politics and theatre are both centred around spectacle is certainly an interesting one, but was not explored in enough depth to merit its introduction). In addition, the premise that everything on stage was taking place in Hillary’s memory or imagination seemed to be at odds with how much of the action did not involve Hillary, and often explored the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of other characters. Changes in character, setting, and time were made clear enough without self-referential signposting – I feel that writer Kevin Armento should have had more faith in his audience to catch on, without needing to add a metatheatrical component which felt cumbersome to the story and performance.

This play and production are both unapologetically pro-Hillary in attitude (there are even “I still stand with her” badges on sale in the foyer) and at times portrays her with a level of sympathy (and artistic license) that almost strays into hero worship territory (interestingly, the casting decisions meant that this production’s Hillary towers over its Monica in a way that serves to reinforce the political and moral high ground she inhabits, although in reality Hillary is marginally shorter than Monica). However, this partisanship is unlikely to overtly bother anyone who has chosen to enter The Bunker; they know their audience, and this is definitely a sermon designed for the choir. As a side note, if you are planning on seeing this play, which I would highly recommend, it could be a good idea to brush up on your knowledge of the Lewinsky scandal; as a non-American who was in primary school when these events took place, I no doubt missed some of the political and historical allusions which flew thick and fast across the stage.

There is so much to unpack in this ferociously intelligent production about history, power, gender, and heartbreak – I may have to see it again before its run ends at the end of April. I hope to see you there in the foyer – the question is, which cocktail will you pick, whose side will you take?

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Read our interview with Joshua McTaggart here

Hidden Figures: WW2, Party Geek @ CoLab Factory

29th March – 15th April 2018

Directed by Zoe Flint

Written by Paul King

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Hidden Figures: WW2 is billed as a WW2 immersive experience at CoLab Factory, the only London venue specializing in Immersive Adventures. Having been a theatregoer for 20 years, I have never been to an immersive theatrical experience. This. Did. Not. Disappoint.

We arrived at the carpet factory in Borough and gained entry through coded conversation.

From the moment we arrived, we were in the world of WW2. From the themed bar, to the characters that greeted us. We were put into a small group of strangers and navigated our way through the maze that had been created. Each of us was given a character to take on, so as we met several different WW2 real life characters, solving puzzles together, we found out more and more about ourselves and them.

Also there is alcohol involved in this production. As theatrebox readers should know by now, you always receive bonus points from me if your play features gin. Which it did. Huzzah!

Every character we met was very different and entirely real. Every room we entered, the atmosphere changed. Every puzzle or interaction with a character was so beautifully and cleverly crafted. I could have spent hours down in that maze. This production excited and enthralled me throughout.

Without giving too much away, what was really fantastic about this, was discovering more about our characters and the truth behind all of these people.

My one issue with this production would be that although they executed very well the light and dark of WW2 and made it rip-roaringly fun; for my taste, I feel like they could have embraced the dark a bit more. Those moments of pain and truth could have been elevated, so much like a Martin McDonagh play, we could have been punched in the gut with the reality of this horrendous time.

This production is a production for every type of Londoner. The theatregoer, the non theatregoer, the historian, the partygoer, the clubber, the logistics specialist, the city boy etc etc..

This is exactly the production to bring more people and interest more people in diversity and difference in story telling and theatre.

I’ve been seduced into immersive experiences, and am now planning my next one and I’m sure this will seduce you too.

So grab a friend NOW, book your ticket and prepare yourself for a truly special evening.

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