Southbank Centre, London – until 13 April 2019
When a company sticks the term ‘immersive’ on its marketing copy, it can too often be a wishy-washy attempt to lure its audience in without really making them engage on any meaningful level. There’s no danger of that with Blast Theory and Hydrocracker’s Operation Black Antler though, as your undercover police mission to infiltrate a suspect protest group means you have to get right in there, really challenging yourself to see how far you can, or should, go in the name of national security.
So much of the thrill of the event comes from the unknown (is it time for more You Me Bum Bum Train yet?) so no spoilers here, but I will say that there’s something shockingly effective about the set-up, the ease with which one can slip into someone else’s shoes and adopt a voice full of abhorrent messaging, ostensibly for the greater good. You can choose how much or how little you engage with the process but let’s face it, no one is booking an immersive show to embrace your retiring wallflower side!
I took part in the show a couple of years ago in Manchester, shortly after the Manchester Arena bombing which lent an eerie currency to its very raison d’être. Even now though, there’s still such a relevance not only in terms of the society we’ve become but also in the checks and balances on it, the role that the state has to play in protecting us and where the boundaries are in pursuing that objective.
But ethical concerns about police surveillance aside, there’s something about human nature here too, the different personas we put on to fit into different groups, that makes you realise how pernicious attitudes to any number of subjects can thrive when one compartmentalises one’s life this way. The choice of venue is particularly apt here, as the lines between real life and theatre are brilliantly blurred, a disconcerting sense of uncertainty pulsing through every interaction – a real credit to all cast and creatives in conjuring such a believable world.
My only note would come as a slight advisory note to solo bookers. As a reviewer I was bolted onto an existing group booking and so was a ninth spoke to their wheel which was a little bit of a challenge, the shorthand of doing something like with friends does make it a different experience than if you’re with strangers (escape the rooms are no exception here either). So I might recommend going with someone, or that the organisers look at the makeup of their groups. Still, it’s a powerfully thought-provoking experience which dares you both to be fully immersive and also to reckon with the consequences of doing just so.