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Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience
Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

How London went gaga for everything immersive

From theatrical brunches to virtual-reality escape rooms, the capital is crazy about getting lost in an experience. But why?

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

Back in 2011, in a tunnel under Waterloo station, 50-year-old Vicki Prais found herself standing on piles of sand, surrounded by soldiers whispering in her ears. It looked exactly like a 1950s Algiers souq. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t even a film or TV set.

Prais was at Secret Cinema’s immersive take on ‘The Battle of Algiers’, where the sounds, smells and sights of the 1966 film were recreated with actors, tech and clever set design. ‘You got swept away in it,’ Prais says. ‘It was a real assault on the senses.’ It’s just one of many immersive events that Prais, a huge Secret Cinema fan, has been to. And she’s not alone in her desire to be swept away. London has more immersive events than ever. There are  immersive afternoon teas, immersive dessert emporiums – you can even experience the inside of a popcorn machine at an immersive dopamine land, if you really want to.

But what does this beloved buzzword actually mean? Immersive events tend to promise a more 360-degree experience than traditional theatre, gaming, culture and exhibitions. They’re often large-scale, hyper-sensory and super-interactive: with actors that move around the audience, projections that envelop from you head to toe in Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’, or an escape room so convincing you might start to wonder if it’s real life.

It’s clear that London has gone all-out gonzo for everything immersive. Google searches in the UK for the term ‘immersive London’ increased by 83 percent between January 2017 and January 2022. Secret Cinema had 20,000 people attending each show ten years ago. In 2019, that had increased fivefold to more than 100,000. We’re even dedicating a full issue of Time Out magazine to the bloody word. But why do Londoners love it so much? Were our lives really so devoid of joy before we had the option of traumatising our kidneys at
a boozy ‘Mamma Mia!’ brunch

Mamma Mia! The Party
Photographer: Luke Dyson

Part of the answer is good, old-fashioned escapism. Emma Wood is a professor in experience and events marketing at Leeds Beckett University and an expert in participatory events. ‘Immersive events are a chance to experience something we wouldn’t in our everyday life,’ she says. ‘They heighten our emotions – including feelings like fear and trepidation. But because we know we’re safe, they’re also pleasurable.’

So, when VR whisks you from the Tower of London’s vaults into the Thames with Guy Fawkes as part of ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ immersive experience (opening on May 6), it’s actually quite fun. ‘The huge growth in immersive events has been partly driven by tech, but largely by audiences hungry for new experiences that are active rather than passive,’ Wood says. ‘We want to do more than watch; we want to be part of the story.’

That’s why immersive events work so well when they’re designed around character franchises: you can meet the likes of Shrek, Gatsby, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes, all in ‘real life’. Tom Maller started at Secret Cinema in 2014 as a performer. Now he’s the director of immersive ‘Peaky Blinders: The Rise’, which launches in June as a live theatrical experience based on the TV show. ‘Immersive theatre is rising through the ranks because people get to make memories within the scenes of their favourite films,’ Maller says. ‘They become complicit in the reason why an iconic character chooses a certain action.’ Add a couple of cocktails and some punchy adult jokes and you’re basically in a grown-up version of Disneyland. ‘Fundamentally, people want to have a good night out,’ says Maller. ‘I think allowing the audience to have a few in-world drinks helps these people as performers [within the immersive story].’

Even immersive art – which tends to be more restrained than its all-singing theatrical counterpart – will try to insert you into the story. The Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera immersive experience, with London tickets available from June, uses projections of the artists’ works to ‘create multiple small stories building into a larger one’, according to creative director Philippe Amad. Rather than displaying authentic works, the experience is a quickfire art-history lesson that can make it look (through your phone camera, at least) like you’ve walked right into the famous paintings – all the while providing that essential Instagram story aesthetic.

‘Mexican Geniuses: A Frida and Diego Immersive Experience’
Photograph: Mexican Geniuses: A Frida and Diego Immersive Experience

So, does London love immersive events because we’re all just bored AF? Chris Rojek, professor of sociology at City, University of London, thinks so. ‘It’s a reaction against routine,’ he says. ‘Levels of dissatisfaction are very high in people’s lives – you can go to an immersive event and it stops you from thinking about how your life isn’t as great as you want it to be. The lockdowns from the past two years have intensified this.’ For Prais, the immersive enthusiast, escapism is a huge part of the appeal. ‘It transports you in the most profound way,’ she says. ‘Instead of being a viewer you become a participant. It’s a bit of escapism, which we all need.’

While it seems like London has suddenly exploded with all things immersive, Rojek says that these events go hand in hand with urban life: we’re still seeking the same sort of escapism as people did when they went to the theatre in Shakespeare’s day. ‘You can think of a football match as being immersive, in that you lose yourself in the crowd,’ he says. ‘It’s true that the technology of some immersive experiences [now] is quite different, but the mother and father of that are just big crowd experiences.’

There’s no doubt that the tech these days helps these events to become next-level. ‘“The Gunpowder Plot” has VR rooms,’ says director Hannah Price. ‘Projection mapping and sonic sound design, allowing us to build layers of immersion including smells, airflow and temperature – everything to let our audience feel like they are actually there.’

But Wood isn’t so fully convinced about this being the future. ‘I’m sceptical about the growth in AR and VR,’ she says. ‘These tend to detract from the social side of immersive events. Going forward, I expect to see greater degrees of personalisation. More events that are – or feel – created just for you and your group.’

Whatever your take on immersive, it’s not going anywhere. As culture looks for new ways to stay relevant to an audience consuming everything through their TikTok ‘For You’ page – not to to mention a craving to feel something after being locked up for the best part of two years – ‘immersive’ is an antidote. Our best guess at what’s next? Two words: immersive commutes. 

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