“In an intense theatrical experience, audience members discover that they’ve been sheltered their whole lives and now must run for it…”
Hunted is the second show to be performed at COLAB’s new venue in London Bridge. Their previous immersive show Crooks was about the seedy London underworld. COLAB’s aim is to push the boundaries of audience participation in ‘pervasive theatre’. The press release promises a night when the audience will take on the starring role in their own action thriller as they’re chased by enemy agents, collect secret packages, hide and evade capture.
The HUNTED experience began when we were sent an email with instructions to meet at Waterloo Station at a given time. As I and my plus one for the night met the adrenaline and expectation was high. We were prompted to download an audio file. This audio file then informed us we were being followed and gave us directions to escape our pursuers.
The only problem is that we weren’t being followed. After the initial excitement, once we’d made a couple of wrong turns and had to pause the audio several times to keep them in sync with each other, we quickly realised we could fail to follow the instructions without any consequence.
The sense of jeopardy was completely lost. It was still fun to run through the streets to audio instructions. But it didn’t feel in anyway scary or intense. Talking to the company after the performance I discovered there had only been the two of us taking part, and usually, with more participants there would be the possibility for confusing other audience members for our pursuers. But even so I think some form of character interaction, attempted kidnap etc, needed to occur at the top of the show, for us then to legitimately worry it may happen again.
Once we’d made contact with the first performer the intensity of the show definitely picked up, as we were pushed through various rooms and tunnels in the COLAB building in London Bridge, completing various simple tasks and interacting with the cast.
Overall the show wasn’t without merit. It was an entertaining hour and a half spent running through London, and for the twenty quid ticket price that was probably cheaper than going to the gym and better exercise than watching a box set. The cast did an enthusiastic job with the limited narrative and characters they had to work with. But ultimately the show felt very slight.
The set and props felt like a cheap veneer over the fabric of the building, rather than the ‘pervasive’ environment which the show promised. COLAB may boast that they charge considerably less than the £75 ticket price of other immersive theatre productions, but this cheapness was felt in the production values. This wouldn’t necessarily have to be a problem if there was a rich deep narrative to make up for it but there wasn’t: big budget action movies are big budget for a reason. The scale of the budget makes up for the lack of any artistic merit in the narrative.
And it was this lack of artistic merit which posed the biggest question when writing this review. Should immersive theatre be judged by the same artistic standards that we judge traditional theatre, or should we treat it just as entertainment. If we are to treat immersive theatre as an artistic endeavour we must ask what corner of the human experience does the work shine light on? In what way does the narrative help us understand better what it is to be alive? While it was an entertaining hour and a half, I’m afraid I thought Hunted failed as a piece of theatre, because it failed to do either of these things. Behind all the interactive bells and whistles the story itself was simply banal.
In his excellent book on script writing Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting Robert McKee identifies the classic cliché of a failed Hollywood ‘commercial success’ script. It goes something like this:
“Through a luggage mix-up at the airport, a software salesman comes into possession of the-thing-that-will-end-civilisation-as-we-know-it-today. The-thing-that-will-end-civilisation-as-we-know-it-today is quite small. In fact, it’s concealed inside a ballpoint pen unwittingly in the pocket of this hapless protagonist, who becomes the target of a cast of three dozen characters, all of whom have double or triple identities, all of whom have worked on both sides of the Iron Curtain, all of whom are trying to kill the guy. The script is stuffed with car chases, shoot-outs, hair-raising escapes, and explosions. When not blowing things up or shooting folks down, it halts for dialogue-thick scenes as the hero tries to sort through these duplicitous people and find out just whom he can trust. It ends with a cacophony of violence and multimillion-dollar effects, during which the hero manages to destroy the-thing-that-will-end-civilisation-as-we-know-it-today and thus save humanity”.
The first thing to say is that if you’re in the business of storytelling and you haven’t read Robert McKee’s book go out and buy a copy of Story now – it’s excellent. The second is to report that the cliché above pretty much line for line is the narrative of Hunted with a little tweak here and there: the-thing-that-will-end-civilisation-as-we-know-it-today is in fact so small it’s in our blood, and the cast of three-dozen duplicitous characters and big special effects are on the much smaller size – but you get the picture.
All of which just left me asking why? Why did COLAB consider this was a story that had to be told? What was it’s point? Was it just to give people the chance to take part in a movie? There are surely better ways to do that. I was reminded just yesterday of a childhood birthday party at the London Trocodero. Back in the 90’s they used to have an interactive experience based on the movie ALIENS. It was very popular – and used some great theatrical techniques and amazing sets to immerse the audience in the world of movie and scare the hell out of them. I have a huge respect for scare attractions in general, some of the best performers I’ve ever worked with cut their teeth at the London Dungeon and Warwick Castle. But however cleverly theatrical tools are used in these interactive experiences I don’t think they’re great theatre or of much long lasting cultural importance outside of the movies they celebrate.
Was the point to allow people to re-interpret their physical surroundings by laying on a new level of meaning as they run through the streets: seeing public spaces in a new light and interacting with them in a new way. Surely in the world of Pokimon Go and augmented reality the aim of laying on new meaning is being explored in far more adventurous ways? And if it was about game play and getting lost in your mission and character, then the narrative set the stakes so very high, the complete annihilation of humanity, that we never really believed that we could lose and so the game was meaningless.
Ultimately no matter what artistic endeavour we are on we should always ask why this story and why this story now? I can’t help but feel in their heart of hearts COLAB would have had to answer: ‘this story because it’s a classic blockbuster and people pay to see blockbusters, and we should do it now because everyone else is doing interactive work and there’s clearly an audience for it’. Having seen their enthusiasm as a company, and the talent of their performers I really think they could aim so much higher than that.
Now maybe it is unfair to expect experiential work to do anything other than give an entertaining experience. The current slew of immersive performances have done a fantastic job of attracting audiences who wouldn’t attend traditional theatre performances, and have been rightly celebrated for that. But one can’t help but wonder if this success in attracting people who don’t like going to the theatre is precisely because in many cases these events aren’t actually theatre at all. I suspect this view could be accused of elitism – but I am a theatre maker and I passionately believe in the art of story telling to make the human experience richer – so I will be unapologetic for judging all theatre on a higher bar than just simply entertainment. If interactive, immersive and/or pervasive theatre is going to be anything more than just another empty bauble in our increasingly disposable entertainment culture – then it needs to judge itself by the same standards as the rest of the theatrical world. It isn’t enough to be just entertaining, it must speak to what it is to be human.
Written by Bertie Watkins and Joe Ball
Production and Company Manager Chris Neels
Designer Becky-Dee Travernen
Cast Directed by Bertie Watkins and Joe Ball
Video Production Johnny Caldwell
Artistic Associates Joe Ball and Chris Neels. Ieuan Coombs, Peter Dewhurst, Lauren Gibson, Ben Hudson, Sarah Ratheram, Brendan O’Rourke, Oscar Russell, Jess White
Listings Information 11 Oct – 19 Nov
Start location: Waterloo Station, London, Lambeth, SE1 8SW
Final location: Secret Location in London Bridge
Tues – Sat, slots every half hour between 7pm and 9:30pm
£19.50 | www.colabtheatre.co.uk