“Although there is clear potential to this show, it needs some improvement before it really hits the mark”
As we stepped into COLAB Factory we were plunged into the mid 19th century, and cast and crew of The Swell Mob urged us to the bar. The ensemble cast’s conviction to their varied and fascinating parts is one of the main strengths of this production. Detailed and rich characters occupy nooks and crannies and wander around, interacting with the audience and telling their stories of how they came to be in the power of the mysterious Master who rules this peculiar place. Large portions of the show are improvised conversations with these characters, although there are moments of more cohesive scripting including an impressively choreographed boxing match.
Flabbergast Theatre’s aesthetic style of the show is in-depth and really does put the ‘immersive’ into ‘immersive theatre’. From the detailed costumes to the even more detailed set, with rooms full of papers and objects to be explored, each audience member gets a different experience depending on where they go and what they do. Who you talk to also makes a big difference, and the cast’s quick thinking and responses to the most unexpected input is to be commended.
Unfortunately the plot of The Swell Mob falls flat, due to its failure to take care of its audience. A tricky element of any immersive theatre in which audience members can wander free is in laying out the rules of the performance in such a way that we can still understand a story from what we have discovered. In this performance the rules were unclear; we were given a bag of coins on entry, but with no sense of how spending them might limit our options later in the show. Even just a more thorough introduction would have been an easy fix, but without it we were left unsure how exactly to proceed.
Crowding is also an issue. In some ways it felt there were not enough actors for audience and several times I came across others at a loss for what to do. Whilst it may be fun to join forces and engage with completely new people, seeking out the entertainment of The Swell Mob is hard, and not always rewarding, work. Although there is clear potential to this show, it needs some improvement before it really hits the mark.
“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.