Colab Factory, London – until 10 June 2018
Just when you think you’ve got your head around the concept of immersive theatre, a company comes along and turns it on its head. Following on the heels of the award ceremony success of Darkest Hour, Parabolic Theatre brings For King and Country back to the Colab Factory in south London for another limited run (it did previously go under the name Keep Calm and Carry On). In essence, it’s a combination of theatre with an escape room experience; on arrival, you are briefed and provided with your own identity cards before everyone is ushered into an underground bunker and the work begins…
It’s December 1940, and you are part of a group of ‘designated survivors’ (a cross-party selection of backbench MPs and their associates). Nazi forces are preparing themselves for an assault on the capital, after slowly gaining ground for weeks; King Edward VIII has refused to accept the resignation of his Prime Minister, Lord Halifax, and Parliament has been recalled. Before long, it’ll be the designated survivors who are at the centre of attention and left with the task of devising a strategy to defeat the seemingly undefeatable. But with the goalposts continually changing, will they be up to the task?
Rather than follow history to the letter (people could potentially prepare for that in advance – and where would be the fun in that?), the company has devised an alternative history into which the audience steps. For starters, Edward VIII is the King (he hadn’t abdicated in 1936) and Lord Halifax is the Prime Minister – plus, in reality, the Nazis never got a foothold in the south of England and Operation Sealion was ultimately a failure.
So, to me, that makes it all the more incredible that the actors down in the bunker with you don’t have any kind of script. Instead, they know their alternative world inside out and help to create a completely different show every single night. It’s probably wise to have taken this route, as there’s no way of predicting some things an audience will come up with! Thorough historical research has been conducted to create this world and there are people on hand to provide historically accurate updates as the show progresses.
A running time of 2h15 might seem a little daunting for this kind of experience, but once you’re off & running the time really does fly by; you can pop out to the toilet if you need to, and there’s a bar in the bunker where you can buy top-ups (though you need to exchange money for their ‘shillings’ before you go in). Also, if you’re feeling nervous about the immersive & interactive nature of the show… Don’t be! As an introverted person myself, I was wary of putting myself through a potentially stressful experience but I’m glad I went for it. If you’re more of an observer, that’s absolutely fine – nobody will force you into doing something you’re uncomfortable with (I was only specifically asked to do a couple of small things, and not in front of the whole group of us down there), and once you’re used to the new environment you should find your confidence increasing anyway.
For King and Country
Photo credit: Owen Kingston
It’s remarkable the kinds of characters that emerge from the audience in this sort of situation – though you’re bound to encounter someone taking it too seriously, who makes a meeting start to drag out a bit, and of course there will be the odd joker in the pack. I really enjoyed how we got some running jokes & nicknames going quite quickly (who else would be Minister for War but Lord Fuckit?), as that eased everyone in and settled it as ‘our’ world. There are a couple of key moments where it steps up a gear, and you genuinely feel the change in atmosphere as it all starts to feel a lot more real.
The only thing I might suggest is having just slightly fewer people in there as it did get quite chaotic towards the end, though it may just have been the particular audience I was in. Without giving you any spoilers, I advise you to remember to share key information with the group to allow everyone to vote on it…
The cast do absolutely astonishing work, adapting to everything that happens and doing their best to keep everyone to time (if they weren’t careful you could imagine it going on all night!). They have terrific commitment to their roles, from Peter Dewhurst greeting you as the smooth-speaking Douglas ‘Dougie’ Remington-Hobbs and Michael Thomas as the unassuming Reverend William Sinclair, to Edward Andrews & Christopher Styles’ slightly antagonistic relationship as Squadron Leader James Muir & Major Timothy Smythe. Zoe Flint is a reassuring presence as Flight Officer Elsie Harvey and Lauren Reed plays Betty, as well as running the bar or playing patience. Writer/director Owen Kingston also acts as Captain Alan Howard, RN for a brief period. All are so entirely natural & convincing in their roles that you could be forgiven for thinking they’d been transported in via time machine!
For King and Country
Photo credit: Owen Kingston
My verdict? The immersive theatre experience to end them all, dropping you in wartime Britain and hoping you’ve got the nous to succeed – with a different show every time, there’s no reason not to return and fight for King and country!
For King and Country runs at The Colab Factory until 10 June 2018. Tickets are available online.
Tags:Christopher Styles, Edward Andrews, For King and Country, immersive, Lauren Reed, London, Michael Thomas, Off West End, Owen Kingston, Parabolic Theatre, Peter Dewhurst, review, The Colab Factory, theatre, Zoe FlintCategories:all posts, review, theatre
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