Devisers: Flabbergast Theatre
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Immersive theatre can be a tricky beast to pull off. It is a subgenre that demands that the audience become part of the performance. But every performer needs direction, and if the audience don’t receive that, everything can suffer.
That lack of direction mars the opening minutes of The Swell Mob, an immersive production from Flabbergast Theatre that has previously enjoyed success in Edinburgh and Adelaide.
Stepping into the world of an 1830s drinking den, one is initially unsure what to do or where to look. There is much to visually appeal, from the cast’s intricate costumes to the gambling tables and antique furniture. But the weirdness that hangs in the air is accompanied by initial confusion, not least because there is little in the way of indication as to what is expected of attendees.
Slowly, though, a narrative begins to unfold, and once the space is opened up to include a basement full of mysterious passages and spooky rooms, matters improve substantially. A bare-knuckle boxing fight, staged and choreographed with balletic precision, is the point at which matters start to kick off.
As the audience fragments and explores the space, there are side quests that explore the evening’s thematic sense of supernatural unease. Seances, hunts for clues and a general air of mystery improve the sense of truly interactive theatre. Even then, though, there is much scope for confusion, partly because there do not seem to be enough things to do to involve all the attendees.
Further marring the true immersive quality is the restriction of the venue, with The Swell Mob having to take place in two different rooms too far apart from each other. One can only imagine that a space where the tap room and catacombs were more closely situated would help in keeping the audience engaged in the scenario as it plays out.
Occasionally, the self-indulgence of the production pokes through, such as when the scenario’s big villain instructs a trio of women under his psychological command to act out various scenarios like a demonic improv class. Similarly, the show’s big climax ends with a choreographed scenario in which the actors look like they are having a ball – but stylistically it does not fit with what has come before, and results in a conclusion that ends with a whimper.
Together with the hesitancy of the start, it means that there is a smidgen over half an hour of true immersive entertainment nestling within The Swell Mob’s 75-minute running time. One dearly wishes that the production’s storytelling matched the visual attention to detail.
Runs until July 28 2019 | Image: Jordan Chandler