Last year, I twice visited Alice's Adventures Underground, in the old vaults beneath Waterloo Station. The show had some truly jaw-dropping set design, a little more audience participation than I was comfortable with (both times I got picked out by an over-friendly chef to roll pastry while doing a dance), and - memorably - a sense of humour, which too many immersive shows tend to forget.
Immersive theatre appeals to that same sense of exploration that I get from playing games; that feeling you've been transported elsewhere, of being taken out of the mundane, and becoming part of something beyond the ordinary. Certainly, my two favourites have been those staged by Punchdrunk Theatre, Drowned Man and Sleep No More, which somehow succeed in being just pretentious enough to kind of be art, while making them sufficiently free-roaming that you have an experience that's unique to each individual.
The level of detail and scale of both Punchdrunk shows was immense. Indeed, in the case of Drowned Man, probably too immense - based over multiple floors of a vast warehouse, it had entire deserts, forests, and old 1930s movie studios to explore. By the end we all felt we'd only experienced the tip of what it had to offer.
What makes Punchdrunk's work so successful is that it lets you wander through the location without hand-holding. You might choose to follow a particular character's path... or just nose around the rooms and sets at your own pace, rifling through drawers and spying on the actors. It's up entirely to the individual.
They also encourage you to split up from your group. One of the joys of the best immersive theatre is coming together at the end and comparing experiences. It's truly unique, and - even if you don't do theatre - something which I believe most video game fans would get a lot out of. Heck, even if you have no interest in "the arts"... you surely can't argue with running around an old department store, shooting at the undead.
At the weekend I visited Somnai, a more contained, slower paced immersive show than many of the others, but the first one I've done which uses Virtual Reality.
Here's my spoiler-lite review.
"Why settle for who you are, when you can be more? We will open your mind so wide you will be able to lucid dream, or as we say, SLEEP™*. You will be able to random access your subconscious mind and control it. In one 90 minute appointment, you will earn more, have more followers, more fans, love more, more, more, more…
"Sweet dreams, SOMNAI
"*may cause acute death."
That's the bumpf on the Somnai website, which gives very little away as to what it actually offers.
I was nervous, admittedly, about the VR aspects. I've not had the best experience with VR, and though I find the potential of the technology to be huge, there's no escaping that there are barriers to it becoming more commonplace.
First and foremost... it makes me feel sick. Literally.
Secondly, there's the knowledge that you look like an idiot to anybody observing you (indeed, there was a moment during Somnai where I was squeezing the fleshy bulbs of an alien plant, and wondered whether it had been included merely to give the cast and crew a good laugh).
I'd read a couple of reviews for Somnai before purchasing tickets, and they spanned everything from people finding the experience all rather deep and spiritual... and others who were just annoyed because the VR headsets didn't work properly.
The latter is why I didn't choose to go right at the start of the show's run; I figured I'd give them a few weeks to iron out the kinks. Which, mostly, they appear to have done... but there's still a way to go if it wants to compete with the big boys of immersive theatre.
And yes: I did feel a bit sick afterwards.
Without a doubt, Somnai is at the pretentious, arty, end of the immersive scale. It has ideas above its station, reaching to be profound with a "plot" that strives to be dream-like and, I dunno... ephemeral, I suppose.
You experience the story in groups of six, beginning in what ostensibly tries to be a doctor's waiting room, before being summoned to sign a medical waver, check in coats and bags, have faces scanned for a 3D model... and then change into a dressing gown and socks.
Alas, this early section was ropily organised. The whole thing felt undermanned, and the staff seemed harassed. We were cut short from signing our disclaimer forms because we were told to hurry up and enter the experience - which I promptly did, only to interrupt another pair having their face scanned. We were also never told how to access the 3D face model. Neither were we given a Fitbit wristband, which I'd read in reviews would be used to download our heart rate data at the end. Frankly, the beginning all felt somewhat sloppy and rushed.
From that point onwards, however, things proceeded more slickly.
We were given a "guide" for our journey into lucid dreaming. The sets were impressive, albeit rather spartan compared to some immersive installations I've been to, though the material she was given to play with wasn't anywhere near as profound and clever as her conviction to it.
We were told bedtime stories that were clearly striving to be deep and philosophical, but just came across as rather try-hard. It might've worked better if it had been set up more like an actual medical process rather than something so abstract an overblown. Sometimes, less is more, and sometimes less pomposity can be more emotionally engaging. People don't think in fairy tales or iambic pentameter, so why do theatre types insist upon it? Frankly, because they believe it makes them look clever, probably.
Unfortunately, Somnai's greatest success is also its greatest weakness. The VR sections - there are three over the course of the experience's hour, each lasting about three minutes or so - mix psychedelic imagery with real-life sensations; wind, smell, touch.
They're mostly very gentle, presumably to offset any potential motion sickness. One of the most impressive moments for me was standing on a storm-lashed beach while the wind blew in my face. It was in these small, personal, moments that the show - mostly - achieved the scale it was aiming for.
Unfortunately, the technology isn't quite there yet; the immersion was broken on a few occasions by glitches. While exploring an underwater cave - otherwise very impressive, in that I could walk around the area and touch objects physically (including the aforementioned fleshy bulbs) - my headset came completely out of synch with the environment, and I ended up walking into walls and other people.
Inevitably, I got a little seasick from all the manic spinning.
There comes a point in Somnai where the group is forced to make a moral choice - to become heroes, or choose a selfish path to (SPOILER) rescue two members who had become separated.
Our group as a whole wanted to take the moral option, but I - mainly so I got to see something different from the rest of them - took the selfish road. This left me alone for a portion of the experience - unaware that I was (SPOILER) being watched on monitors by the others.
Though that isolation was affecting in its own right - my selfish actions had led to a "bad" dream, see - there was more vague storytelling, and stuff which clearly wanted to be meaningful, but just came across as, frankly, a load of old wank.
The show concludes with another sequence - in arguably the show's most impressive set - enhanced by more VR, before ending with a bizarre stab at a G.A.Y. nightclub experience during which we all stood around awkwardly until we were funnelled out into the inevitable cocktail bar. The drinks were nice - if, of course, pricey - but here was another let down. I'd heard that it was possible to "scan" your drinks with your phone for some AR shenanigans, but this was never explained to us.
Overall, Somnai is worth a visit, providing you temper your expectations. It succeeds in being a showcase not only for VR's potential, but also its current limitations. Perhaps if it had been grafted to a less up-itself story, and the organisers hadn't been hitting us over the head repeatedly with a baton marked "THIS IS ART, YOU PROLES", it might've been more forgivable.
As it was, we were left with some light motion sickness, and a slight sense of disappointment, but also glad that we'd had the experience. It is by turns ambitious and impressive, and then sort of disappointing and pretentious. As with a lot of "serious" theatre I suppose.
Secret Cinema gets a lot of stick, but of the two shows I've been to of theirs, there hasn't been an ounce of self-importance; they've always felt like they're trying to entertain first and foremost, that the organisers are doing it simply because it's a cool, fun thing to do. I'm off to their Blade Runner show in May, and - based upon the enormous, immersive, scale of their Star Wars and Back To The Future events - I've got high expectations.
On any given day I'd rather be swapping droid parts with Uncle Owen, or attending the Enchantment Under The Sea dance, over some wafty, diaphanous, actor asking me whether my soul is "stormy"...
Click here for tickets and details.