Reviewed – 20th August 2018
“impressive visual verisimilitude and accents beamed straight from the forties”
In a disused rug factory in South London, the intrigues of the wartime codebreakers of Bletchley Park are woven into an immersive version of this familiar narrative. A ground floor room and basement are transformed into the famous stables in which the German Enigma machine ciphers were cracked. Here, the audience mingles with heroic figures such as Alan Turing, Joan Clarke and Dilly Knox, cracking codes together and playing chess, after which the strands of hidden affairs, espionage, sickness and forbidden sexuality intertwine with appropriate cleverness, before resolving over a glass of ginger wine.
The production company, Mechanical Thought, blends game mechanics and puzzling with theatre, as if immersion isn’t novelty enough, but it’s a seamless fit. The nature of the genre means that no two experiences are the same, but in Hut 6, I can vouch for the calm yet commanding performance of Tom Black as Gordon Welchman, the epitome of pipe-smoking ultra-intelligence, as he assisted our group (eventually) crack vital intercepts. These were rushed in by a breathless Amelia Stephenson as Joan Clarke, in real life the longest-serving member of the Bletchley Park team but, since various film versions, better known for being Turing’s short-suffering fiancé.
As the evening progresses, it transpires that all the casting is excellent, with impressive visual verisimilitude and accents beamed straight from the forties. David Alwyn is a crepuscular Dilly Knox, Timothy Styles angsts for England as Alan Turing and Beth Jay blushes brilliantly as Mavis Lever. Christopher Styles’ direction avoids any sense of spoof, evoking the repressed yet militarised demeanour of the period. There is plenty of ‘Fritz’, Old man’ and ‘Doodad’, but with clipped delivery and authentic hairstyles, all are wholly plausible.
The COLAB Factory appears to have a fan club of regulars and it’s not hard to see why. The space may be cluttered, smelly and a little short of oxygen when rooms are full, but the proximity to the performances creates a visceral sense of involvement. There are short-comings, inevitably. The high standard of the scripted parts puts pressure on the improvisational elements, which falter in pace, though not in characterisation. The art direction is thorough, but on a budget, and the location not ideal. However, these are all details that will improve, especially if they manage to take the production, as hoped, to Bletchley Park itself.
Reviewed by Dominic Gettins
Photography by Paul Russenberger
COLAB Factory until 28th August
Previously reviewed at this venue
Hidden Figures: WW2
Reviewed – 8th March 2018
“It’s not quite an escape room, nor would I describe it as theatre … “
Hidden Figures is described as an immersive theatrical event, where you are assigned a historical figure of the Second World War, and work with a group of people to get through ‘recruitment training’. After milling around the general area of the venue, looking particularly dodgy, I finally worked out to ring on the doorbell, and was let into the space, after a quick interrogation from Paul King, aka Hardy Aimes, which left me suitably terrified. I entered into a very well decorated ‘mess hall’, a great secret bar. The themed cocktails, with historical backgrounds were a nice touch, as were the Easter eggs hidden around the space for the more historically inclined audience members.
Historically minded or not, Hidden Figures aimed to enlighten people, rather than shame them, in what they do or do not know. This was done very successfully. As someone who spent their childhood in museums, I was both educated and entertained by this collection of unsung heroes of the Second World War. The tasks provided by the cast were challenging enough that they were entertaining, without being so hard you felt like you wanted to give up – a healthy balance. The performances from the cast, including the original M, played by Angus Woodward, and a real life Alan Turing, brought to life by Christopher Styles, pulled the audience in enough to be invested into the outcome of their ‘training’. Especially with some more little nods for the more historically inclined members of your party. I personally took great pleasure, in the array of medical puns provided by Lillian West, and played by Amelia Stephenson, which began the night with a cheery mood. I don’t want to say much more about the show, as to not spoil it for any future patrons of the performance.
Paul King, producer, and Zoe Flint, who directed, did a fantastic job of engaging the audience whilst educating them. As an audience member, there is no way to be passive in the evening. I would probably describe Paul King as a curator, rather than a producer: Firstly, that is the impression I got from him; secondly, because at the end of the evening, it wasn’t about the actors, the performance or even how the audience participated, it was about the characters the audience and the actors inhibited. It was about the hidden figures.
It’s not quite an escape room, nor would I describe it as theatre. The best way to describe it is as an interactive museum with alcohol (and puns). It’s a fantastic, enjoyable and educating evening, as long as you are prepared to throw yourself into your ‘training’.
Reviewed by Charlotte Hurford
Photography by Owen Kingston
Hidden Figures: WW2
COLAB Factory until 1st April