Having previously seen some fantastic immersive theatre performances and having no idea what to expect from each, I waited outside The Colab Factory, as instructed, until seeing a ‘Civil Defence Volunteer’ in full 1940s period dress. Passwords exchanged, I was admitted … so far so usual (for immersive events. The apparent civil defender, Paul King (Producer and Actor), once indoors, threw off his disguise to reveal his army uniform and issued my instructions, code-name and identification papers. The totally spiffing scene of war-time Britain was well and truly set.
Given a new identity and basic character information, I was led with fellow ‘trainees’ to the mess bar; gaiety mixed with trepidation was one of the few cocktails not on the bar’s list, but was, in any case, apparent among us all. No sooner had I sipped the last of my pink-gin-cocktail, I was led into an underground bunker, with my fellow ‘trainees’, by the mysterious Krystina Scarbek (Georgina Hutchinson), who inducted us into the ‘SOE’ and performed a mock polygraph test on each of us. This, if little else, settled the small audience group into a compliant and more malleable frame of mind and demanded a little pre-reading of the character identity to avoid the all-knowing gaze of the charmingly menacing Krystina.
Moving swiftly through different zones of the ‘military headquarters’, including; pit-stops with Nurse Lillian (Amelia Stephenson) – weak jokes and strong gin – and Dr Hargreaves (Sandy Murray) – curiously delightful (and eyes everyone will adore) – the team then met with their toughest challenge of the evening, set by none other than Alan Turing. Played astonishingly well, by the remarkably talented Christopher Styles, the late and great Turing is as one can only ever have imagined him to be. Nattily-dressed in period tweed with a charming but bashful personality, Alan led us all through a cryptic treasure-hunt, prompting us to solve the clues we found in the room and keeping us on track as it became clear to all of us, including Mr Styles, that we may not make the grade for Bletchley Park in the very near future. On to a final challenge – in what at times felt like a 1940s episode of the Crystal Maze – a morality test. Leading us through the test, Angus Woodward as Maxwell Knight – British spymaster and archetypal establishment figure of the 1930/40s – portrayed with all the spiffing, toffing and cap-doffing you might expect from a PG Wodehouse novel.
Finally, passing the grade as ‘SOE’ operatives – we retired back the officers’ mess to celebrate, hurrah! As we congratulate ourselves on remaining alive, in a former carpet factory, not too far from Southwark, we are greeted again by the ever-enthusiastic Producer. Receiving an envelope, containing a little secret about our character, provides a final and emotional twist to the evening: our characters were real heroes from wartime Britain. Each character, a lesser-known hero from a diverse background – not the strapping, ‘red-blooded’, white British, ‘Tommy’ history is known for but an equally heroic person from a different background with different beliefs and a different way of life, fighting together for a common good, for survival of everything decent.
The production lacked the finesse of other immersive experiences and at times was a little disjointed, one of a few minor flaws, which prevented the fifth star being awarded. What cannot be faulted is the enthusiasm with which the cast re-imagine their characters through real-life stories, re-told through this solid example of immersive theatre. The characters did Britain proud. The cast did theatre proud.
Reviewed by Lee Knight