REVIEW: THE GRIFT (Bethnal Green Old Town Hall Hotel) ★★

We are welcomed into the Old Town Hall Hotel, a grand establishment which often acts as a superb setting for performances, particularly immersive ones such as writer and director Tom Salamon‘s ‘The Grift‘. We are given a comical introduction from the charming Mark Oosterveen, who explains that we about to take part in “a practice in the art of deception”. This is, we discover, in order to assisst the lovechild of Michael Caine and Marilyn Monroe (yes, you read correctly), called Ben, with the taking-down of his conniving arch-nemesis, The Hammer. A dramatic start.

I held high expectations for this, noting several props dotted around, and when placed into groups the buzz of excitement could be felt amongst the audience members. It was our job to decipher riddles, find clues and complete tasks in order to become super sleuths, eventually foiling Ben’s nemesis. However, this production is filled with numerous lows as well as highs.

Firstly, having attended several immersive performances in the past, one of which was actually at this location, I speak with conviction when I say that performances such as this are no mean feat. Audiences are classically used to sitting and being entertained externally; it’s not often that we are encouraged to dive in and get involved in the story, so innovative ways of keeping people interested are required. However, just because something is ambitious and difficult to pull off, doesn’t mean we should lower our expectations when it comes to quality and tying together of plot.

I was impressed with the overall execution of the technicalities: the organisation of the padlocks and keys, the integration of technology and the way that everything seemed to run smoothly without overlapping as different groups moved to their next locations. We had to decipher some surprisingly challenging clues, calling upon a mixture of talent-specific knowledge (such as being able to read and play music) and more general knowledge. Our powers of deduction were indeed tested, but only for brief stints. We took part in short escape-room-type tasks and followed directions (I think we lapped the hotel about 15 times – consider this a warning to wear sensible shoes). Incorporating the old court room in at the end was also a great idea for giving the audience members who have not seen it before that ‘wow’ factor. Logistically, I take my imaginary hat off to Salamon and team.

However, sometimes less is more. About 30 minutes in and the whole ruse felt laborious and strained. Members of my team looked wholly bemused, as if they knew a while ago that this was no longer thrilling, but might as well cling on to the faint hope that it might get better. This production could be so much more sophisticated if it trimmed the unnecessary fat from several corners. Simplify the plot, shorten the scenes, and for goodness’ sake please stop over-acting (one scene towards the end was honestly so cringe-worthy due to the performer overdoing it – I was silently pleading with her to tone it down).

There are some good actors in this, particularly the very personable and engaging Daniel Millar, and the imposing, highly effective villain that is Ged Forrest as The Hammer – but the whole thing is so ambitious that their talent is overshadowed and rather redundant. The one thing that immersive productions will always have is the novelty factor, and this might be unique enough to entertain some audience members – but that is largely down to the location’s prestige and the running-around aspect. Ultimately, the plot has to feel worth all of the running around and effort you are asking from your audience. The ending was both underwhelming and predictable, and all I left with was sore feet and a clearer mental diagram of the hotel’s layout.

Overall, this feels more daft than dastardly, and with tickets starting at £35, this needs to deliver much more. For the last half an hour of this experience I was hoping it would draw to a close, with my patience dwindling and disappointment mounting. ‘The Grift’ did not have enough gusto behind it to be taken seriously, and relied too heavily upon its audience being easily entertained with boxes and novelty, shying away from quality plot and delivery.

Reviewed by Laura Evans
Photo: Scott Rylander​


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