Anticipation rises as adventurous seafarers are shuttled past cabinets and into a pressurised vault, ready to be plunged twenty thousand leagues under the sea. Down, deep down to the E.V. Nautilus, a labyrinthian submarine crammed full of strange and unusual characters clutching secrets to their chest that are darker than the murky waters pressing on its barnacled hull.
Or rather, opening night punters stand perfectly still in one of the many subdivided spaces that haunt the old bones of the Austral Theatre. Opened in 1921, it has transformed into a cinema, a supermarket, a roller skate rink, and, oh, the ignominy, a carpet warehouse. Now shuttered, it’s soon to be partly knocked down and will become, you guessed it, apartments. Immersive theatre experience Love Lust Lost is its last creative hurrah.
And as anyone whose childhood was scarred by monsters made of tin foil and bubble wrap on low-budget sci-fi shows like Doctor Who will know, it only takes a dash of imagination to fool the mind and transport it to another world. So, yes, It did feel like my ears popped as we waited to board.
There’s little left of the Austral’s former glory, broken up by too many partition walls and scorned by shabby stained office ceiling tiles that conceal much of what it once was, its grand old bones jut out here and there. Still, this dereliction actually works in favour of Broad Encounters (A Midnight Visit), specialising in free-flowing shows like the seminal Sleep No More or Malthouse Theatres Because the Night where you wander, following characters (or not) at will.
So the ghostly Austral is the Nautilus, with its mess of leaky pipes, nautical paraphernalia, scattered oyster shells and seaweed tendrils snaking around every corner as the depths appear to leech through the hull. It’s a ship in disrepair, both engineering-wise and in terms of its crew, who are not only coming apart at the seams psychologically, but several of them biologically too.
Sandro Colarelli (Bell Shakespeare’s The Alchemist) has an underwater flare/flair for the theatrical as Captain Anderson, a pirate-like character whose larrikin, showman’s charm is tempered by an undeniable menace bubbling up from under his ragged petticoat. For all the work – co-written by Broad Encounters’ creative director Kirsten Siddle and dramaturg Helen Cassidy with direction by Scott Maidment and associate Drew Fairley – clearly draws on Jules Verne via Shakespeare and the gothic poetry of Nick Cave and Kate Bush, the biggest vibe is The Rocky Horror Show.
Seen through this lens, Anderson is our Frank ‘N’ Furter, so it’s no wonder that his tattooed sailor daughter Sandy (Bri Emrich, L’Hotel) has gone AWOL, flitting through the sub’s shadowy, claustrophobic passages in a bid for freedom from his twisted ways. There’s mutiny in the pressurised air. While Emrich is a gifted physical performer, she’s a little too softly spoken to truly hold a crowded chamber that’s often abuzz with distracted chatter despite guests being encouraged to whisper on entry.
Chloe Towan is a stand-out as Claude, all painted freckles and a crustacean claw as a sorry character who appears to be infected by the sea itself and mid-transmogrification, as is a tentacled, semi-feral creature played by Callum Mooney. A lonely soul, Claude is nursing a broken heart and suffering for her misplaced loyalty. Our Columbia, in this story, is one to actively engage with as an unshakeable, off-the-crab-like-cuff performer. As is the brilliant Kristian Šantić, who portrays the ship’s chaotically scrappy, saucy chef Stefano. Both Meg Hickey and Jeremy Lloyd – not unlike Rocky Horror’s Magenta and Riff Raff – bring an electric burlesque trace to their leather and lace figures.
As with any immersive show, who you follow and where you go will vary wildly from person to person and even on repeat visits, and the less you know going in, the better. Even in the foyer afterwards, it was clear as participants chattered that many of us missed entire sections of the Nautilus. Some of us got wet and found a hidden bar; others uncovered a bouncy castle beyond a cabin plastered with eye-popping innuendo.
Exploring these spaces is almost more fun than the central story, which isn’t quite as tight as it needs to be, getting a little lost in the wash despite a dry run in Brisbane before alighting on the Austral. No matter, all is not lost. If this sort of salty sea shanty is your thing, it’s bound to thrill, with a grand table-top throwdown finale worth setting sail for.
All performances for 'Love Lust Lost' last 75-90 minutes and tickets are on sale now. The season will run until December 16, for more info visit the website here.