Old Metal Exchange, London
Ordinarily a show that originally opened in May 2019 might by now have badged itself as a long runner. But that was before Covid rudely interrupted and consigned it to a theatrical chrysalis. It’s also just one of the reasons that it took me until New Year’s Eve 2022 to get round to seeing it. Actually that’s not quite the right verb because as the title tells you it isn’t so much a case of sitting and watching as being right at the heart of what is happening. The War Of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience from experts in the field Layered Reality takes H.G. Wells’ famous novel, adds a heavy layer of input from the famous 1978 concept album masterminded by Jeff Wayne and has its audiences (in groups of no more than a dozen) moving through 24 separate scenes in the remnants of an old Metal Exchange in the heart of London’s financial district.
As with Layered Reality’s other current London experience The Gunpowder Plot (attended six weeks ago) there’s an assault on the senses quite unlike anything else experienced in a theatrical setting. There’s a dozen or so live actors guiding you through a labyrinthine set, a handful more including Carrie Hope Fletcher who appear in holograph form, a pulsating rock score, pyrotechnics and stunning light effects, sounds, smells, textures and plenty of scary moments.
Above all there’s the VR headsets which make three appearances as you are swept along a river in a boat and out to sea and witness the destruction of a church from the confines of a confession box. Best of all is a “flight” in a hot air balloon which whisks you off to space itself. Although VR itself has moved on since the show opened (the quality in The Gunpowder Plot is better) the airborne sequence itself was certainly enough to induce some mild vertigo even though the rational part of my brain (yes, it does exist) was telling me we had barely left the ground.
The live actors are great at inducing a sense of (controlled) panic and also evidence some impressive improvisation skills when interacting with the participants. I think we were a relatively tame bunch and as with the previous show it’s probably better if you can go as part of an already established group. That said it was nice to see the artilleryman (Eddie House) designate our youngest group member as his second in command – and she did a better job than I would have done, that’s certain. There was also some delightfully Victorian/steampunk eccentricity from Joe Cushley’s astronomer (fried by a Martian heat ray) and Dickon Farmer’s royal engineer who kick started the last and best sequence.
The settings include detailed re-creations of Horsell Common where the Martians first land, a Victorian parlour and kitchen where you hide out, underground trenches, a mini Planetarium and the inside of one of the iconic fighting machines – this bit really made me jump when I was apparently selected as an unwilling blood donor. The props team must have bought up every tin mug within a ten mile radius and the detail that goes into such things as the posters and flyers plastering the walls meant I could have done with spending a bit longer investigating and reading.
All of this is enhanced by the technological savvy of Carl Guyenette and his team and the more attention you pay to the surroundings the more you will be rewarded. One glorious moment I must mention (though not part of the actual show as such) is the flushing of the half time loo when you’re regaled with the famous “Oo-la” wail; delightful.
Of the two Layered Reality shows this one gets my vote. Even if its a bit rougher round the edges technologically there’s a better narrative (we all know what happened to Guy Fawkes). That said I’m not sure the eventual victory and how it comes about is dwelled on as much as it should have been. However, it’s still a great couple of hours which really pulls out all the stops to both thrill and amuse and therefore was perfect for New Year’s Eve. From both the book and the album I’d say I know the storyline pretty well, indeed if I didn’t I might have found the narrative confusing especially in the continuous rush from one area to the other. Be warned this involves a good deal of groping around in the dark or dimly lit locations, some awkward bending to get through holes and even a plunge down a glorified children’s slide. I can assure you that when you knees aren’t what they once were, then the last thing you’re bothered about is a Martian invasion.