Colab Factory, London – until 1 April 2018
The team behind Keep Calm and Carry On (look forward to a future run renamed For King and Country) have done it again. Another Second World War drama, this once again puts participants through their paces, cracking codes and making life and death decisions as part of the Special Operations Executive – spies, codebreakers and generally surreptitious actors on the side of the British in the war.
The title refers not just to the clandestine nature of the work participants undertake, but also to who they are. All based on real people, they are extraordinary heroes, characters, chancers and charmers. They also happen to be black, gay, lesbian and disabled. They don’t fit the traditional pattern we have either of spies or WW2 operatives – truly they are hidden figures.
The action is somewhat less free-flowing than that in King and Country, and as such I would suggest seeing this first, to get a sense of your own willingness at war effort. This doesn’t have the roaming free-for-all nature of the previous production, which makes it less unpredictable, but possibly also pacier. This is more directed, and so easier on those who sometimes freeze in the face of too much choice in immersive theatre.
I – as regular readers may have gathered – am not one of those. But the fact this was slightly more on-the-rails (and kept so extremely well by director Zoe Flint) didn’t spoil its charm. The actors were still superb, displaying agility – especially Amelia Stephenson as the incredibly funny nurse, Lillian West – and patience, guiding us through a set of challenges and decisions.
The set is very evocative. Built into a basement the darkness and damping of sound adds to the clandestine feel of the show. The fact that the drama starts before you even enter the building also gets you into the right frame of mind immediately. It helped bond our small group, made up of two parties, into a unit pretty quickly.
Hidden Figures makes an important point about the contribution to the war effort made from across the commonwealth, and by those more often shunned by society. But it does so subtly and in ways that enhance rather than distract from the central drama. While this might run the risk of losing the message, for me it felt more powerful. We had walked in their shoes for the night and come to understand not the social challenges that faced them, but the bravery they displayed.
This is immersive theatre at its best. Pulling you in through that special combination of interesting story and personal challenge. I recommend you seek out this hidden gem.