“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.
“a truly immersive show – the role the public plays means that no two performances are ever going to be the same”
A soldier in a second world war uniform is the only indication that something unusual is going on behind an unsuspecting doorway in South East London. He welcomes you into an intimate flag filled bar transporting you instantly back to the 1940s. Cast members circulate in period costume whilst Douglas Remington-Hobbs introduces himself and gives you a brief back story as to your purpose for the evening.
It’s December 1940, but not as we know it, Lord Halifax is Prime Minister, Edward VIII is on the throne, Nazi troops have landed in Britain and are rapidly advancing through the South East of England. Britain is in crisis and an emergency session has recalled both houses to Parliament. A small number of backbench MPs and their families are whisked away to a secret London location. As a member of the audience you assume the identity of one of these designated survivors. Almost immediately disaster strikes in London and soon you are electing a new Prime Minister and cabinet to take the lead and take control of the situation.
Peter Dewhurst is excellent in his role of Douglas Remington-Hobbs. He controls proceedings and is responsible for steering the audience through the tough decisions they have to make. He is quick witted and his ability to draw out suggestions and shoot down the crazy responses is brilliant. This is a truly immersive show – the role the public plays means that no two performances are ever going to be the same. The actors are talented and experts in improvisation. They feed trickles of information and direct you towards a solution – sometimes facing the difficulty of dealing with a particularly headstrong and passionate individual. The evening progresses with a mixture of healthy debates in a makeshift parliament interspaced with the audience being sent off to carry out a number of different tasks.
Notable performances also came from Christopher Styles and Edward Andrews playing Major Timothy Smythe and Squadron Leader James Muir. The set (Owen Kingston and Christopher Styles) is fantastic with the attention to detail adding to the atmosphere. The space is used to maximum effect and easily negotiated as you move through the different scenes. Whilst those with “elected” roles are given specific direction “unelected” audience members are left to wander freely as each scenario unfolds. Sometimes this allowed some to become a little bit lost with what was going on. I felt that it would have had a better flow if the “unelected” had been split into groups and given specific tasks.
Overall For King and Country is a clever, fun evening out – original and extremely engaging. A knowledge of historic events and participation is not essential but would add to your enjoyment enormously. Don’t worry if you are not “elected” to a lead role there are still plenty of opportunities for immersion.