Back in the day I can recall a time when pantos used to run until Easter. There was always something a bit odd about seeing this most Christmassy of entertainments when spring flowers were appearing and everyone’s mindset was chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. I had a similar moment of reflection with the “show” I saw yesterday as, ideally, it should really have been attended a couple of weeks ago during the Bonfire Night season. And indeed, that had initially been the plan; for reasons I won’t bore you with here I’d had to take a rain check. However, when I found that the “show” had initially opened in June I didn’t feel quite so out of step and besides one season seems to melt into another nowadays; Xmas ads have already been pervasive on TV for weeks.
The eagle eyed among you will have spotted that I’ve now written show as “show” twice. This is because, although there are certainly strong theatrical elements, The Gunpowder Plot is badged as an immersive experience rather than an actual play. As well as live actors, Layered Reality uses elements of the escape room/problem solving exercise, a history lesson and a theme park ride all topped off with some brilliant VR technology which make this something quite different. Based on real historical events and characters (though with a healthy dose of reinvention and even fantasy) the experience tells the story of the 1605 plot to blow up parliament headed by the enigmatic figure of Guy Fawkes in an England riven by religious bigotry and an insecure monarchy. This all takes place in a purpose built underground labyrinth right next door to the Tower of London and is primarily there to capture the tourist market. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, although the prices charged are quite steep especially if you start opting in to the add on extras such as meals, drinks, souvenir photos (really??), etc., etc.
As is the way with these immersive shows you are not simply an audience member but an integral part of the action. In this instance one of a small band of Catholic renegades who might (or might not) be in favour of the failed plot which, had it taken place, would have killed hundreds of people. And therein lies part of the problem because the outcome can only ever be that the plan is foiled – the rest, as they say, is history. It totally diminishes the power of the group to affect the outcome and as we all know that it ended badly for the conspirators I was left wondering what the purpose of the show actually was. If you can suspend those nagging doubts however it’s quite a lot of fun which I suppose answers the question. Basically, it’s a bit of fun and if you happen to learn some stuff along the way then that’s all to the good.
“Trust no one” is the watchword as you try and work out who are agents of the crown, who are double agents and even whether there is a triple twist going on. You get a rudimentary disguise and are assaulted not just by the sights but also the sounds and smells of early 17th century London. One of the most disconcerting sections is when you are shut up in a pitch black priest hole while outside a brutal arrest takes place. The technical stuff is very well done with both strong sound and lighting (Adrienne Quartly and Robbie Butler respectively) creating a strong sense of atmosphere. The actors who appear work hard for their paycheque; as well as following a script by Danny Robins they also have to keep the audience group moving and improvise according to responses from a constantly changing set of participants. Some non sequiturs inevitably creep in (I’m not sure that imprecations such as “Move it!” were part of the vernacular for the historical era) but there’s generally a sound interpretation of character and situation which keeps the tension flowing
The live cast are supplemented by a host of others who appear in the three VCR sequences which are scattered throughout. These include Harry Potter alumnus Tom Felton as Guy Fawkes (if you’re expecting to encounter him live, then don’t) with the character dominating the second half of the show. The VCR sequences are the undoubted stand outs of the proceedings as you get to zip wire over Stuart London (you can even see “your feet” swinging in front of you) and are rowed down the Thames to Parliament. For some unaccountable reason the boat “takes off” for a dazzling aerial spectacle but by then I was just enjoying the thrill ride element rather than worrying about plot. There’s also a neat sequence at the end as you are raced through a brief history of why we still celebrate the whole event. The trick with all of this is to make sure you keep doing a 3600 swivel or you’ll miss the myriad of lovely detail which the sequence’s director Simon Revely and his talented team has included.
While The Gunpowder Plot may not be the height of immersive theatre it certainly reaches for the apex of which the genre is currently capable and makes for an attractive addition to the tourist market. It would be ideally suited to a works group outing where participants already know each other and there isn’t the necessity to start bonding with a group of random strangers. Now that we can all go out again it will almost certainly do well in the run up to Christmas and would make a great gift for theatre goers to try something different. And the fact that November 5th has been and gone is certainly no barrier to enjoyment; in any case as I finished my journey home two weeks after the big day there were still fireworks going off in the distance – a fitting finale to an entertaining and unusual “show”.