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What we learned doing five immersive London shows in 12 hours

Immersive work of all sorts is booming in London. But would anybody be stupid enough to spend a whole day doing it? Yes!

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

London is a city in which ‘immersive’ entertainment has become big business. Although the term could retrospectively be applied to all sorts of things – theme parks! paintball! Roman orgies! – it’s only in the last decade or so that it’s become a ubiquitous description for basically any sort of live show with an interactive element. 

It’s a descriptor that has long been applied to pioneering theatre companies like Punchdrunk (whose work was originally referred to as ‘site-specific’). But their arty masterworks feel like their own thing. In fact, probably the most influential purveyor is Secret Cinema, whose increasingly grandiose line in pre-film entertainment for screenings of classic movies has upstaged the films themselves (its latest, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’includes the option to not even bother watching the film).

But what actually links London’s many immersive shows? In the last few years our city has gained a ‘Great Gatsby’ show, a Gunpowder Plot show, a ‘Sherlock’ show, a ‘Stranger Things’ show, a recreation of ‘The Crystal Maze’, an unofficial ‘Fawlty Towers’ dining experience, an official ABBA dining experience, a faux-tube dining experience and a dining experience that is an unofficial mash-up of ‘Moulin Rouge!’ and Disney’s ‘Mulan’. A ‘Doctor Who’ immersive show recently closed, and a ‘SAW’ immersive show is coming soon. And that’s before you widen the net.

Is Dans Le Noir immersive? Is Ballie Ballerson? Is STRINGFELLOWS? And who is going to this stuff? Is it a ‘scene’? Or is it just a buzzword blithely applied to a selection of completely disparate things? I decided that to truly understand, I would need to immerse myself in immersive: five shows, across five different genres, in one day, something I very strongly suspect nobody else has done before. 

This is my story.

Monopoly Lifesized, 2022
Photo by Laura Gallant

10.15am-12.30pm: Monopoly Lifesized

‘I’ve got one question for you…’ roars an actor dressed as Mr Monopoly, the top-hatted tycoon mascot of the beloved board game Monopoly. ‘Who here likes… MONOPOLY!!?’

Me! I love Monopoly, and am notorious within my family for being such a sharkish uber-capitalist – obsessed with expansion at all costs – that I’m absolutely zero fun to play against.

If I could apply these principles to my actual life then I’d own a fancy Park Lane hotel, probably with a Salt Bae pop-up rinsing punters in the basement. Alas, IRL I have all the killer business instincts of a baby rabbit. And so here I am, a middle-tier arts journalist, arriving at stop one of my journey: Monopoly Lifesized on Tottenham Court Road.

It’s rare to find any sort of live entertainment in London at 10am, but Monopoly appears to be doing a brisk trade. Me and my long-suffering colleague India – who has been forcibly assigned to keep me company for the day – aren’t even our own team: we get paired up with a mother and her three tween charges, here to kill a morning of the late school holidays. 

Mr Monopoly is standing next to a normal-sized board as he addresses us; then with a grand flourish we’re taken to the lifesized room (one of four!), where we’re represented on the giant board by our ‘playing piece’, that is to say an actor with a model of a Scottie dog on his head. It is different to actual Monopoly. There are fewer squares, but they come with more complicated rules: you still roll a die, but every square you land on requires you to do a special puzzle. It’s basically a lot like what I imagine being on a gameshow is like, and there’s even a prize – lunch in the Top Hat restaurant – for the winning team. We come fourth. Of four teams. But it’s good fun, and a rousing start to the day.

1.30pm-2pm Klimt: The Immersive Experience

Projection-based immersive exhibitions are the American candy shops of the art world: they seem to be everywhere all the time now, but it’s not exactly clear why. At the time of writing, there are ongoing immersive exhibitions in town devoted to Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Gustav Klimt, and more seem to be constantly joining them: famously there are numerous Van Gogh based shows that basically do the same thing, often turning up in the same city at the same time.

Having arbitrarily plumped for the Klimt experience off Brick Lane, I fret that we’re not going to have time to spend the advised 90 minutes there. That’s, uh, really not a problem. After walking through a room full of panels of ludicrously dense biographical text that nobody in their right mind is going to read, we head to the main space, where middle-aged tourists sit stony-faced in deckchairs, looking impassively at some Klimtian projections while new-agey music plays in the background. 

It would be unfair to write off all projection-based art shows. But this one is absolute nonsense, and it’s almost impossible to fathom why anyone would pay north of £20 to stare at some sophomoric animations when you can see numerous real masterpieces in proper London galleries for free. A VR experience that you have to pay an extra fiver for is pretty enjoyable and features a reasonable look at Klimt’s actual art. But the rest of it is genuinely shocking – mercifully the only real example we come across of the word ‘immersive’ being used to cynically flog something totally lacking in substance. We grimace our way through it in a brisk half an hour.

Tomb Raider: The Immersive Experience, 2022
Photo by Laura Gallant

3pm-5pm Tomb Raider: The Live Experience

I would not have put a bet on ‘Tomb Raider: The Live Experience’ being the highlight of my day. But that was the old me, the me who had yet to save the world. This high-spirited adventure romp is enormously fun, whether or not you have any sort of pre-existing opinion on the adventures of pixelated ’90s sex symbol Lara Croft.

‘Have you ever done an escape room before?’ asks a member of staff at the beginning.

‘Hmmm… dunno,’ I reply, authoritatively. 

It’s interesting how ambiguous genre can be in the immersive world: ‘Tomb Raider’ isn’t actually a very different idea to a lot of shows that describe themselves as immersive theatre. But, frankly, there are people out there who would rather hack off a limb than go to anything that calls itself theatre – it’s about billing your show in a way that appeals to the right audience as much as anything. As far as I can tell, ‘escape room’ is just shorthand for any sort of immersive work that features light problem-solving.

Anyway, ‘Tomb Raider’ absolutely nails the mix of urgency, silliness, spectacle, genuine interactivity and the illusion of interactivity that makes a good immersive show work. 

Who isn’t impressed by saving the world?

It’s ‘official’ insofar as they have the name rights and there’s a microscopic pre-recorded vocal element from Alicia Vikander, who you may possibly remember as having starred in the modestly successful 2018 ‘Tomb Raider’ film (the sequel to which was recently binned). But to be honest that’s all beside the point: it’s an action-packed romp in which we travel the globe (ie some big rooms dressed up as the Arctic, a ship, a jungle and a tomb) attempting to unravel a mystery by looking for little crystal ball McGuffins which we get by solving various timed puzzles. A zip wire is involved at one point. 

It’s all spectacularly good-natured, with our quest expertly geed along by the actor playing Parker, Lara’s righthand woman, who nannies us while piling on a sense of urgency. It’s wilfully daft at times, and it sort of falls apart at a climax that requires us to invest in a villain played by an actor whose entire schtick is ‘vamp for time’. But it’s an absolute hoot. There’s a definite gamer vibe to the other audience members we see (we have our own team), but I think anyone up for a laugh and some modest physical exertion ought to enjoy it. We save the world! Who isn’t impressed by saving the world?

Phantom Peak, 2022
Photo by Laura Gallant

6pm-8.30pm Phantom Peak

By now, everything is starting to look like an immersive show, in particular the Overground, which is part suspended, leading to us having to make a series of bold transport choices if we’re to achieve our goal of making it from Camden Town to Canada Water in under an hour (let nobody say I chose this itinerary for geographical convenience). India thinks we should get an Uber. I insist we switch to the tube. She wearily lets me have my way. 

Our destination is Phantom Peak, an ‘immersive open-world adventure’. It’s basically… a small imaginary steampunk Western town, a bit like one of those living museums if everything in it was pretend. You can technically visit it for up to five hours, which I think would finish us off at this stage, plus we have more immersing to do elsewhere later, but we manage a decent stint.

I am basically happy that there’s a faux Wild West steampunk town in Canada Water

The titular town has bars and food concessions and frankly the day has been quite a lot already, so we kick off by having a long sit down with a pint and a vegan burrito. Sitting down can be immersive too, you know. Actually, the show representative who meets us at the door seems quite cross that we’re not getting more stuck in straight away, which is a bit of a joke when you consider we just helped Lara Croft save the world but hey ho.

There are, I think, 15 ‘storylines’ in Phantom Peak, each of which involves talking to the cast and tapping stuff into an app to dig deeper into this world, a Wild West-style town run by a cult-like organisation named Jonaco, which has bestowed futuristic but clunky technology upon the citizens. There’s also the creepy subterranean old town, partially destroyed when an airship crashed into it. To be brutally honest, I am a horrible nerd and find this all extremely compelling, especially our second quest, which involves us trying to establish the mysterious paternity of the town’s barkeeper. We never find out the truth, though: despite giving ourselves 45 minutes to solve it, we are endlessly pinged between various town inhabitants, each of whom directs us to someone else to get a crumb more of the story. I’ve no doubt we are near the end by the time we have to go, and respect to the performers for memorising their roles in a multitude of plots, but it gets pretty sloggy, the IRL equivalent of grinding our way up to the next level. But I still like it, and am basically happy that there’s a faux Wild West steampunk town in Canada Water.

9pm-11pm Alocotraz

One final journey on a mercifully more cooperative Overground later and we arrive at Alcotraz, the Shoreditch outpost of an immersive bar chain wherein audience members are cast in the role of inmates at an old-school US penitentiary.

We’ve been immersing for 11 hours now and are thoroughly warmed up to the art of making semi-stilted smalltalk with in-character actors. The big gimmick at Alcotraz is that we bring our own bottle of spirits, which we ‘smuggle’ in past the improbably affable prison guards and hand over to the prison kitchen, who then make high-end cocktails for us (you get four cocktails per person and there’s a £30 cover, so it works out at pretty solid value). There are little online character briefings you fill out before visiting: it turns out I’m a convicted bootlegger known as ‘The Mailman’; I can’t remember what crime India has committed, but she goes by the name of ‘Cool Papa’. Nice.

After donning our bright orange boilersuits (!) we settle into our cell and are unclear whether or not that’s supposed to be ‘it’. Are we bedding in for a few rounds of undisturbed drinks? Absolutely not: we are soon plunged into a storyline to do with the prison’s prodigiously bearded warden coming down excessively hard on the guards and inmates. Three cocktails in, and we are fully immersed in a conspiracy to bring the warden down, which to be honest all feels par for today’s course. It’s also quite a relief: I’m not saying me and India now hate each other’s faces, but we’ve spent a lot of time together, and at this stage in the night it’s not unpleasant to have our chat heavily dictated by the ebb and flow of penitentiary politics.

‘I gotta warn you, the Warden hates bootleggers,’ the kindly prison guard informs me.

‘I hate bootleggers!’ roars the hated Warden as he takes me and India into his office to give us a stern talking to. The feeling is mutual, buddy; the feeling is mutual.

I’ve always felt that art should be challenging, and in some cases unpleasant

As we’re ejected from Alcotraz, having assisted a group of high-security prisoners in overthrowing the man charged with protecting society from them, I reflect upon the day. 

In many ways, the clearest lesson we have learned is that projection-based immersive art shows are a big pile of wank. 

But setting the Klimt experience aside, it strikes me that whatever their differences, all four of the other shows are defined by human interaction: we had to spend the duration of them talking to actors. Immersive work is about cool sets, yes, but it’s also about human contact. It’s nice to talk to people… and it’s nice when they tell you what to do. I guess watching a play, or going for a drink, or even playing a game of Monopoly at home lacks the sense that somebody else is reassuringly in charge. Here, though, there are actors to look after us and nudge us on our various adventures. (And by the way, a big shout out to those actors: true professionals labouring all day long in largely uncredited roles.)

Anything can be immersive if you stretch the meaning enough. My night bus to London Bridge is an immersive experience, I reflect, as I tap in and offer a loud THANKS! to the bus driver, who ignores me. But the type of stuff I’ve done today both enhances reality – by getting you to do fun escapist things – while making it simpler – there are people to guide you through it. 

Personally, I’ve always felt that art should be challenging, and in some cases unpleasant, which is probably why I am so eager to get the Overground everywhere, and why I’ve often been cynical about the modern breed of immersive show. Part of my problem with Immersive Klimt is that it felt like it was aimed at people who find art galleries scary; people who should, frankly, grow up. 

Maybe immersive shows are a much-needed escapist reaction to the grimness of our present; maybe they’re just a wilful dumbing-down of more challenging work; maybe they’re a fun fad that we don’t need to think too much about. But against all reasonable expectations and with one notable exception, I’ve had a good day. Immersive art is the comfort food of London live entertainment – I can see why there’s an audience hungry for it.

You might also like: The eye-popping history of immersive art in London.

Where to get immersive in London right now

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