London's immersive theatre trend

Posted on August 26, 2014 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

The jetty

'The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face' at The Jetty, Greenwich Peninsula


I am always grateful that I grew up and live in a part of world where cultural arts are highly valued, respected and accessible to everyone. I would not be the same person if I did not get the opportunities to study art and music at school, and be exposed to world-class art exhibitions and theatres at a young age. Surprisingly, I still have a vague memory of "An Inspector calls", a play that I highly enjoyed when I was 15 years old.

If you are a theatre-lover, then London (not New York, according to a recent report in FT) is the theatre capital of the world. We have countless of West End and off West End theatres, two opera houses, open-air theatres at Regent's park and Shakespeare's Globe ( tip: avoid going when it's over 25 degrees), fringe festivals, and site-specific theatres.

Although I have enjoyed many West End plays ( I am not a musical fan), I often find them to be overpriced and over-hyped. Personally, I prefer smaller and quirkier theatres where the settings are more intimate and you can see the performances up close. One of my favourites ( a well-hidden secret) is the 45-min long Lunchbox theatre at Bridewell theatre near Fleet Street. Set in the derelict swimming pool hall ( a rather small one) of the St Bride Foundation Institute, the theatre offers an eclectic range of plays, musicals and ballet at lunchtime and in the evenings. Not only prices are low, the place is never too busy nor touristy and best of all, you can have your packed lunch while watching the performances.


regent's park open air theatre Shakespeare's Globe

Left: Regent's park's open air theatre; right: Shakespeare's Globe theatre


In recent years though, immersive theatre has become a big trend in the theatre world thanks to companies like Shunt, Punchdrunk, You Me Bum Bum Train, as well as the highly successful Secret Cinema. Instead of sitting in their seats quietly watching the shows, audiences are called to take part and even interact with the actors directly. In one of my previous entries, I mentioned about Rift's 12-hour long Macbeth that took place at Balfron tower this summer (tickets were all sold out very quickly). And this concept is elevated even further at Pamela and Sharlene’s Tack-On Tours, where their architectural walking tours are merged with immersive theatre.


tack-on-tours90 Long Acretack-on-tourstack on tours central st giles court

Pamela and Sharlene’s Tack-On Tours: 'The ugliest buildings in London' walk


As part of the London's festival of architecture, I attended the two hour long 'The ugliest buildings in London' walk with the two artists in June and had a blast. Yes, it was awkward, embarrassing ( we all had to wear fluorescent orange safeguard high-viz vests and listen to them via a megaphone around the West end) but highly entertaining and captivating at the same time. Participants are asked to take part in different ways and it is unlike any other walks that I have attended before. I spoke to the artists after the walk and they told me that the concept arrived as a result of their passion for acting and architecture. Our walk was their second one and they have already had to handle participants who resisted to engage in the act ( there is always a party pooper at every party). I thought they did a fantastic job and the walk enabled me to miggle with other participants and we ended up having drinks together after the walk!


eat at camden fringe phoenix arts club

Left: 'Eat' at the The Camden Fringe; Right: The well-hidden Phoenix arts club


Having attended some shows at the previous The Camden Fringe festival, I was keen to see some performances this year. Yet with over 200 productions, it was a challenging to select just a few to attend. I randomly picked a few and as it turned out, they were all immersive performances where audiences would either take part or be involved somehow.

Since my Italian friend was in town, I thought it would be a good idea for her to experience something unique in London. I picked 'Eat', an immersive play about food, family and love produced by a new company called Angry Bairds at Lov'edu Gallery in Camden's Stables market. The setting is a dinner party where actors would sit amongst the audience and interact with them (like their guests) at the same time. Each person has a plate of strange-looking but edible food in front of them, and we are encouraged to eat it. The intimate setting makes the audience feel like they are at a dinner party with a group of strangers, which is fun and a bit awkward at the same time. The acting by the cast members is convincing and it is particularly interesting to see how they interact with the audience throughout the play. My friend and I enjoyed really the show and it got me excited about the upcoming shows to be followed.

The second show I attended was 'Reality Abuse' created and performed by critically acclaimed magician and mind reader S1L3NC3 at the Dublin Castle. A group of about 12 people are lead into a dark room and are seated at a table with the magician, and throughout the interactive performance he does not say a word. Although slightly confusing at times, it is an unique and strange experience as you have no idea what to expect. There are mind tricks and illusions, and if you love David Blaine, then you are certainly going to enjoy this.

The last show was 'Le Jet de Sang' inspired by Antonin Artaud's The Theatre of Cruelty at the Phoenix arts club. Directed by London Fringe Award winner, Mike Miller and performed by the newly formed theatre group composed of five female. As the audience enters a cabaret style setting, the 4 masked actors are already seated by the tables with glasses of drinks on some of them. The audience would pick their seats and the performers would move around the room interact with the audience throughout the show. It is hard to follow what is going on because there is no narrative and the acts change frequently without much notice.

As much as I want to like this, I found it hard to engage and enjoy the performance, and I am not even sure why. Perhaps it is to do with the disjointed style or acting method but something was lacking for me and I could not get into it. As always, experimental arts are never intended to be crowd pleasers, just like Shunt's latest work, 'The boy who climbed out of his face' at The Jetty in Greenwich...


the jetty the jettythe jetty the jetty o2


Being the pioneer of immersive theatre, Shunt's new work is all about the multi-sensory experience. Not much information was revealed before the show except for the location of the performance, which is within some shipping containers on a jetty in Greenwich.

My friend and I had a bit of difficulties locating the exact position as there are few direction signs until we reached the pier. But as we were approaching towards the location, we were immediately impressed by the setting. And when we finally got past the ticketing area, we were told to wait in the outdoor bar area until our number has been called ( stamped on our hands at the entrance). Then we were told to take off our shoes and socks and put them into white shoe boxes (which we had to carry throughout the performance).

So what happened next? I am sure that every participant would have their own view and interpretation on this but if I can summarise it, I would say the experience brought back memories of me walking through a haunted mansion at an amusement/ theme park when I was a kid. Yet what I saw reminded me of the dream scenes in 'Twin Peaks' as I was almost expecting a dwarf in red suit to suddenly appear and dance in front of us!

This show is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, because not only it has no narrative, it is disorientating, awkward and uncomfortable. Being barefoot allows the participants to feel the texture and temperature of the ground in each room, which includes pebbles, sand, plastic, TV screens, concrete (or something similar) and artificial grass etc. If you want to make sense out of this, well, you can't and you are meant to either. This is probably difficult for many people because the search for narratives and meanings are so ingrained in us that we perpetually seek to label, analyse or make sense of our experiences and the people we encounter. The show challenges us to abandon this habit and allow our sensations, feelings and emotions to take over.

The rather short and surreal experience inside the containers ends very abruptly ( I assume it is intentional), and it is followed by a finale outdoor... After the mellow last act, my friend and I had drinks and snacks at the pop-up bar (blankets are provided) and then took the Emirates air line (our first ride) to enjoy the beautiful view of the area from the top. I guess for those who are not fond of experimental theatre performance, there is always the cable car ride to compensate for the 'trek' to this part of London!

'The boy who climbed out of his face' is on until 28th Sept, with 5 performances every night from 6:30 onwards.


This post was posted in London, Theatre & performance art and was tagged with London, London festival of architecture, immersive theatre, Shunt, Camden fringe