The Great Gatsby – Saturday 17th June 

I love a bit of fancy dress. Especially the kind that lets you look either really great or really terrible while you do it. So an immersive Great Gatsby production with a serious emphasis on dressing up, drinking cocktails and partying sounded like one we couldn’t miss.

It sold out when it ran at the Vaults Festival earlier this year, so my theatre chums and I quickly got our collective act together and bought tickets when they announced a re-run in a new venue later in the year. So having been waiting for it for a while, and with positive reviews from friends that had seen it, our expectations were higher than we probably like to admit.

Presented by The Guild of Misrule and The Immersive Ensemble, the production was not without its flaws, but I’m worried about sounding really negative so before I go into those, I’ll preface this by saying we did have a lot of fun.

It took a while to get going. We didn’t arrive too early – just 15 minutes or so to give us time to check in and buy a drink – but still had quite a bit of time hanging around before Carraway came into the bar and it really “started”. But even when it started and we were ushered through into the main room, it felt like a slow start – there was quite a bit of time allowed for getting seats, exploring the space (which wasn’t huge) and buying drinks. I appreciate that this was probably necessary to give people the chance to get drinks etc, but it lost momentum while we were milling around. It felt like it really started when the cast all started doing the Charleston, and that did kick start the fun. After that, the story started, and splinter groups were taken off into other rooms by various characters, but we always reconvened in the main room for the major scenes, ensuring no one missed these. I think we were unlucky here, as we kept missing being taken away, which meant we felt like we were missing all the special, small group scenes. I did later get to witness a couple of these – at the climax of the story – and the ones I saw were quite intimate and emotional, and probably the most enjoyable bits of the production for me. I know I can’t keep comparing everything to Punchdrunk, but I really missed being able to choose my own story – the groups were largely selected by the actors (understandably for logistical reasons of moving the groups around) but it meant I got frustrated, wanting to follow certain characters but being unable to without forcing my way through a crowd in a way that was unacceptable for this audience.

A note on the audience – there were two girls who hadn’t dressed up, who chatted the whole way through the production, and had no spatial awareness and kept standing in front of other people. Seriously, if you’re not going to get into the spirit of it and stop your conversation, just don’t bother. It’s disrespectful to the actors, not to mention the other audience members who have paid to be there and whose evening you’re ruining.

But onto the good stuff – overall, we had a great night! Despite the humidity turning the venue into a sweat box, the actors were committed and engaging, adding little touches of audience interaction that never felt too forced. I really liked Carraway’s performance, and Jordan was a bundle of fun (though her accent slipped a couple of times). I took a while to warm to Gatsby, but how easy is it to get to know a rich playboy who has emotional barriers? He really came to life in the second act and I found myself feeling quite attached to him by the end. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Daisy due to the particular scenes I saw, but I liked what I did see. George and Myrtle were the kind of characters I’m usually drawn to – a secondary storyline with an emotional hook – and I found George sweet and vulnerable which made the story’s ending more impactful. I didn’t spend much time with Tom, but he seemed well cast and solid in the scenes I did see. I’m not sure what – if any – role the rest of ensemble had beyond dancing, but they added to the atmosphere nicely. The finale was well pitched – moving, but understated.

The production did feel like it was put together with a limited budget – not that it felt too cheap, but it was missing the rich, sumptuous luxury that you expect from a Gatsby party, some of the attention to detail etc. But once I got into it, I stopped noticing such things.

Overall, we really enjoyed our evening, and that was more important than any of the negatives – I’d just urge the company to continue to review how they move the audience around to enhance the audience experience. It’s not the sort of immersive production that demands a second visit, but I would go back – and perhaps try to stand in different places to ensure I saw different scenes.

The Great Gatsby is on until 10th September at a secret London location (but it’s not very secret – it’s on The Guild of Misrule’s website if you don’t want to book without knowing). Info and tickets available from http://www.seetickets.com/s/tour/the-great-gatsby/341

 

Vixen – Saturday 3rd June

I love opera. It’s far from a secret, but it’s not something I talk about much because I don’t have many people in my daily life to discuss it with. But I love it. The way the score, the orchestra, vocal gymnastics, costume and set come together to tell a story is always fascinating and often sublime. When I was at uni I studied everything from Mozart’s Le Nozze Di Figaro,  Handel’s Semele, and Beethoven’s Fidelio to Tippett’s The Knot Garden, Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Berg’s Wozzeck. But since leaving uni, most of the opera I’ve seen as been at the Royal Opera House or the Coliseum, and usually with my parents who favour the classical style, so while I’ve loved each and every production in its own way, the operas I’ve seen have been exclusively traditional – I’ve seen at least 3 productions of Bizet’s Carmen and a lot of Verdi and Mozart.

So when my most opera-savvy friend, Phil (who is himself a singer with the ENO) said that there was a production called Vixen coming up which was essentially immersive opera, I HAD to go.

Based on Janacek’s classic opera Cunning Little Vixen, Vixen is a modern take, translated into English and set in the present day. Instead of being a fox, Vixen is a young homeless girl on the streets of London, just trying to survive. While the translation and modernisation of the text wasn’t 100% successful for me, the production wouldn’t have worked in the original Czech with surtitles, and it didn’t detract from the experience – though I can’t pretend I didn’t giggle when I heard the phrase “Maccy D’s”. That’s probably a first.

Wearing headphones which are playing some of the background and pre-recorded music and seamlessly blending it with the live music and singing, the audience follows the cast – which includes a small live orchestra of violin, flute, saxophone, oboe and melodica/pianica – through three main sets. The musicians are brilliant, all multi-cast as the supporting characters/ensemble as well as playing much of the score, from memory, and often while moving.

Unsurprisingly, the star of the show was Vixen herself, played by Rosie Lomas. Diminutive and childlike in stature, with a powerful and haunting voice. Fragile but tough. While I wasn’t completely convinced by the updating of the text, the setting really worked – though it’s not an opera I know, I can’t imagine the traditional setting having as much impact as this production. The issues Vixen faces are very real – rejection, abuse, love, crime, and of course, homelessness – and the production makes it very clear that Vixen is just one of thousands of anonymous victims of these issues, and they all deserve better.

Is it truly immersive? It doesn’t hit all 5 senses like a Punchdrunk show, but honestly we (by which I mean my fellow Punchdrunkards and I) need to stop comparing everything to Punchdrunk, and it did draw me in and make me feel like I was in Vixen’s world, even if I wasn’t an active part of it like at Temple Studios or The McKittrick. But more importantly, it was so good I don’t care.

If you don’t think opera’s your thing, give it a go – it’s concise, relatable, and excellently produced. If you do love opera, you shouldn’t need any more convincing.

Vixen is on at The Vaults until 10th June. Info and tickets here.

The Neath – Thursday 23rd February

Wow… it’s been a while. The last month has been completely mental at work, so I’ve rather neglected writing – though handily I took some notes at a few bits and bobs so I’ll be writing them up eventually.

First up, I got together with my theatre chums for The Neath – one of the key immersive events at the Vault Festival, which came with quite a buzz about it, a simple but rather clever little website, and a production team with a decent pedigree (The Crystal Maze and Time Run for starters). So everything was looking good.

An immersive bar, with Azazael as the landlord, The Neath is a place somewhere between the mortal realm and hell, filled with regulars with stories to tell, where we would have to confess our sins, complete mini-quests, and find seven goblets (one for each sin) in order to gain our collective freedom.

Overall, the theming and styling were good, and the performers were incredibly committed and strong improvisers – though I did hear a couple of folk complain that some of them were intimidating or aggressive. Which brings me on to the next point – the level of expected participation was high. The concept worked, but only if you were brave, as it really required you to seek out answers, go on quests, and initiate conversations. I’m not too shy with these things, and have long advocated Punchdrunk’s “your bearing shapes your fate” mantra. But after someone had found a goblet and been pulled on stage to confess her sin, where she loudly and proudly announced she’d slept with a married vicar, I wasn’t particularly keen to find the next one.

The other issue I had, was that the audience size was a touch too large – we spent a lot of the evening literally queuing up for a series of one-on-one experiences. Ideally, it needed more to do and see that wasn’t one-on-one.

And really, in my opinion, it was a little too expensive for what it was – especially as as soon as it started you were ushered to the bar to buy drinks. I do appreciate that the ticket price (£25) allowed you to return as often as you wanted throughout the run, but that probably also impacted on audience experience – the later in the run you visited, the greater the potential returning audience members, therefore the longer you’d be queueing for your experiences. And returning visitors would have a better idea of how it worked, know who to talk to, where to stand etc and potentially rob new audience members of those experiences. A ticket around £15 with no return visits would have felt more appropriate.

It had real potential, and (especially as I work in events and look after budgets and ticket sales) I totally understand the commercial pressures – we’ve all seen shows we loved close because they weren’t financially viable – however on this occasion it felt like they’d sacrificed audience experience, and for me it was a step too far.

Sorry. I really wanted to love it.

Happy thoughts – Thursday 23rd February

  • I was meant to be working on site at one of our events tomorrow morning, but I’ve managed to find someone to cover for me. I’ll still be going into the office, but after such a late finish last night, the prospect of an extra hour in bed is AWESOME.
  • Went to a thing called The Neath tonight – part immersive theatre, part bar. Not sure I could entirely recommend it (I’ll try to write it up while my memories are clear), but it gave me and my theatre chums a chance to catch up and that was a bloody delight!
  • In the pub before The Neath, I bumped into one of my suppliers from work – he’s one of the ones I get on well with socially and we usually have a boozy catch up at a networking thing a couple of times a year, so was nice to see him. But more importantly, sometimes it’s really reassuring to be reminded that even somewhere as densely populated as London, where you can feel so alone, you’re never too far from a friend.

Happy thoughts – Tuesday 7th February

  • I don’t really sleep enough during the week. Usually I count myself lucky to get about 6 1/2 hours, and often it’s less than that. But last night – after my terrible night’s sleep on Sunday – I got to bed early, put on an eye mask to block out all light and promptly passed out for 7 1/2 wonderful hours. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was glorious. And what made it that little bit sweeter, was waking up briefly about 4am, already feeling like I’d slept quite a lot, and realising I had a further 3 hours of shut-eye to go. Bliss.
  • I finished my book today. Well, my play. I’ve been re-reading Macbeth – inspired by my trip to NYC and Sleep No More – and much as I love Shakey Bill, it’s not the easiest thing to read, especially on the tube where there are lots of distractions. But I enjoyed it possibly more than any other time I’ve read Shakespeare, probably partly due to my recent trip, but this time I managed to absorb the narrative while also letting the language dance around in my head, and it was a completely different experience to reading it when I was younger when I had to really think about the meaning of every word. Plus, you feel super smart when you read Shakespeare in public, and it occasionally attracts the odd admiring glance.
  • Booked tickets for the immersive Great Gatsby – it’s sold out at the Vault Festival, and I missed the boat, but my little theatre group (plus a few extras) all managed to get out collective sh*t together and agree on a date and book quickly. So now we’ve got something else to look forward to in the coming months. And now I need to find a flapper dress…

Happy thoughts – Saturday 4th February

  • Sometimes it’s the little things – we had the simplest bruschetta for lunch, made with some leftover sundried tomato and olive bread that I bought in the reduced section for 34p yesterday – and it was bloomin’ delicious!
  • Went to see some comedy this evening, and it was so good to just laugh. It included a couple of comedians we’d heard of (off the telly) but the surprise of the evening was the final act, Spencer Brown, who was exactly our cup of tea.
  • And sometimes it’s the big things. One of my closest friends was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in her early twenties, and her best friend Ruth was just the most incredibly supportive friend throughout. She started making care packages for cancer patients – full of little treats and useful bits to help them through their treatment. Their story was turned into a video and featured on BBC Scotland’s The Social today, and it made me so bloody proud – watch it for yourself below – not to mention amazingly grateful that Mairead is now cancer-free. I’m honoured she was one of my bridesmaids when I got married.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fbbcthesocial%2Fvideos%2F1071134346330321%2F&show_text=0&width=400

Northfields – Friday 3rd January

I booked this show on a bit of a whim. Unable to get tickets last night for a show at Vault Festival, my friend Chas, whom I’d been hoping to see there, suggested we go to Shrink Theatre’s Northfields tonight instead. I was initially hesitant – having been ill earlier in the week and spending a lot of time travelling yesterday then out last night, I had been quite looking forward to getting home early and spending the evening getting reacquainted with the sofa!

But I’m so glad I went. After a mad dash across London to get to Plaistow from work, I met Chas in the foyer, bumped into my new theatre buddy Sabrina that I met in NYC, then got ready for an evening of immersive theatre.

I’ve seen some brilliant small immersive productions, and some less successful ones. Many of them use immersive as a buzzword and aren’t actually immersive at all, some are just a little amateurish, and some are genuinely great. Northfields, I’m pleased to report, was pretty great.

Here’s what the website says:

Set in the late 1970s at the cusp of mental health reform, Shrink theatre present an immersive theatrical journey through an institution on the verge of closure. Delve into the lives of our residents and staff, and take your place in the system during this pivotal time. Will Northfields provide the care you require? And what do you know about running a hospital?

Reflecting on the NHS past and present, we challenge you to think about the treatment of mental health both medically and socially, then and now. How much has really changed in 40 years?

I didn’t do much research other than reading this – Punchdrunk did always teach me to go in blind! – and I wasn’t sure it would live up to this. I tried not to get my hopes up, as it promised to be intelligent and inquisitive, but it really was. And it was entertaining too.

On arrival, you’re asked to form 2 queues – we figured from the items on the table we were going to be split into staff and patients. I joined the patients’ queue, and sure enough was given my hospital wrist band and sent off into the infirmary’s communal lounge area. We were led through a day in the hospital, – assessments, taking our medication, group therapy, mealtimes, etc. Along the way we met a few other patients, and we crossed paths with the staff (both cast and audience) at various points.

The characters were well developed, and each patient had a distinct story which made them all incredibly sympathetic, and exposing the unsuitability of the “one size fits all” approach to treatment in the 70s. Matt and Soapy were charismatic, but also incredibly sad when their vulnerability showed – even though I knew what Matt had up his sleeves, I still had a little pang of sadness when he looked me in the eye and showed us. Martha’s horrible treatment by the very people meant to understand her – both patients and staff – was awful to witness and raised important questions. But it was Em that I was most intrigued by, a nervous soul with sad, tortured eyes. His performance was subtle but powerful as he silently and gently tried to cope with his reality and help the people around him. Despite usually being in the background, overwhelmed by much more dynamic characters, I kept finding my eye drawn to him as he curled up into a protective ball, twitched in reaction to something, put pencil to paper, or reached out to someone and by the end I was feeling really rather attached to him.

I spent less time with the infirmary staff, but I imagine if I’d followed that path I would have seen more of the stresses and strains of running the hospital on a shoestring with limited resources, and as a result I would have felt more sympathetic to the staff – though we did get glimpses of it from a patient’s perspective. They clearly weren’t all monsters, just struggling to cope. Chas actually stayed to see if he could get a ticket for the evening’s late show to follow the other journey – I probably would have stayed with him if I weren’t still feeling a bit ropey and keen to get home to the sofa!

Overall, it was powerful, sensitive, intelligent, and incredibly well executed. Highly recommended.

Tomorrow’s its last night – if you’re at a loose end, go. They deserve a sell out for their finale. Find out more and book tickets at http://www.shrinktheatre.co.uk/northfields